Laughing at someone else's misfortune is highly popular YouTube entertainment. Explore a much-viewed example with this three-phase activity.
The first phase can be a simple lesson starter or a short standalone discussion trigger. Moving onto phases two and three produces more complex and multilayered lines of enquiry. Topics raised include bystander motivations, personal safety, emotional support and how shifts in perspective can alter attitudes.
By the end of the activity students will be able to:
- describe what help from strangers someone struggling after a mishap might like, and identify some of the barriers to offering that help
- state some simple safeguards for avoiding accidents when using a mobile phone in a public place
- give their view of the judgemental attitudes that are sometimes expressed towards those injured in an accident
- describe how suspicion of wrong-doing can affect sympathy towards those in need.
Say to students that they are about to see a YouTube video that went viral early in 2011. It has been viewed and circulated millions of times. Many US and UK newspapers and television news programmes featured it. The scene is a shopping mall in Wyomissing, Pennsylvania, USA. A woman is texting while walking. The audio, consisting of background comments by viewers, is worth hearing.
Show the video.
Invite first reactions. Is it funny? One newscaster introduced the clip by telling viewers, "Get ready to feel guilty for laughing." Is that a good summary of most people's reactions?
Focus by asking students to pick one of the following attitudes to the video that best matches their reaction:
- What an awful, nightmarish thing to happen. Poor woman.
- That could have been me. It could have happened to anybody.
- Unbelievably careless. She deserves to get wet.
- Play it again. I want to see it again.
Give students one minute to think of as many remedies to reduce the risk of this happening. Share and vote for the best. Examples might be:
- A safety rail
- Signs reminding people of the dangers of texting while walking
- A phone app that warns of approaching obstructions.
Think about the video itself. Note that it isn't direct from the shopping mall's security cameras. The recording is being shown in the security office. While others watch, laugh and comment, someone is filming the CCTV footage on a mobile phone. Was it right or wrong to upload that mobile phone video to YouTube?
2 Who helped?
Here is an extract from an interview on a US TV breakfast show. George Stephanopoulos, presenter of ABC's "Good Morning America," asks the woman who fell in the fountain, Cathy Cruz Marrero, what happened when she got out of the fountain.
Play the audio clip.
CCM Well, I was more, probably, dumbfounded. I was totally embarrassed. I was, like, well, I’m hoping nobody saw me. So, let me just walk away. A kind lady, of a store there, manager at the mall, was kind enough. I walked up to her. And all I kept saying was, I fell. I fell in the fountain, I fell in the fountain. And she came - she says she wanted to hug me. But I was so drenched, she didn’t dare.
GS You didn't hear anything from mall security. Correct?
CCM Nothing at all. To my knowledge, they got there twenty minutes after I left.
Briefly discuss students' reaction to this. Has hearing from Cathy Cruz Marrero changed anything they thought in the first phase? Then split the group into two, offering each group the following task. It can be done as a discussion, or as a written exercise.
Group 1 Focus on the choices facing someone who has had a mishap. Do you want public help from a stranger? Or do you want to slink away and hope no one notices your embarrassment? Note examples from your own lives of comparable occasions. Make a list of practical things that you would like people to do, and things you would definitely not like to happen.
Group 2 Focus on the problem of giving help. What is reluctance to give help based on? How do you help someone who is dripping wet? Would a hug have helped? Does that depend on the person? Make a list of practical things that you think you personally could do to help someone, and things you would definitely not want, or be able, to offer.
After discussion or the writing activity, compare items on the list from the two groups in a plenary. Is there a good match, or a mismatch, between the type of help people would like to be offered and the help people are comfortable offering? What does this say?
3 Blame, judgement and responsibility
Two things happened in the days after the video went viral.
- The security guard who uploaded the video to YouTube was sacked. The company providing security services to the mall issued a statement saying it does not condone this type of behaviour and that processes are being put in place to prevent it happening in the future. Discuss what the company means by "this type of behaviour". How might the security guard feel at the sacking? Might they have expected it? What made them think it was an okay thing to do? Talk about how you might feel if something you did was captured by video and circulated. How difficult is it to recall or delete a video once it has been circulated?
- It was widely reported that Cathy Cruz Marrero appeared in court on charges of theft by deception and receiving stolen property. The tone of some media coverage changed dramatically. Questions were asked about her reasons for identifying herself and doing a television interview. There were hints that her decision to hire a lawyer and consider suing the mall was linked to her need for cash. Think about these elements then ask why this changed attitudes to her. Do you feel differently now that you know she was in financial and legal difficulties? Would you change any of the views you gave earlier? Talk more widely about how compassion and concern can be fickle, withdrawn from those who do not seem to deserve it. A principle of humanitarian assistance is that it is offered on the basis of need, not earned by being a good person. How difficult can that be in practice?
UPDATE: In March 2012 Cathy Cruz Marrero pleaded guilty to buying goods with a stolen credit card. She was sentenced to three months of house arrest and put on probation.
Finish by stressing the message from Cathy Cruz Marrero: do not text and walk.
Play the audio clip from ABC’s Good Morning America.
GS And, Cathy, I know you...as embarrassed as you are from all this, you did learn a big lesson, huh?
CCM Absolutely. Absolutely, George. Do not text and walk, especially to the younger generation. The fountain could have been empty. I could have been in the hospital. I could have walked into a bus. You know, got hit by a car. It can happen anywhere. Anywhere.
Recap on the reasons it is not good to text while walking. Include risk of theft as well as injury.
Consider devising and running an advertising campaign highlighting the risks, in school or in the wider local community.
First published in June 2011 this educational resource was reviewed and updated in September 2012 to include details of a criminal court case in March 2012.