Friday, July 2, 2010

Journalism Ethics #3

A modern day jet cockpit is a sea of dials, switches, and lights...time consuming to interpret individually while a plane is in flight. A good pilot knows how to efficiently scan, panning the scene, looking only for something out of the ordinary--like a flashing red light.

So it should be with Internet comments, in a reverse sort of way. Unfortunately, the routine is for rude, obnoxious, racially insensitive trolls to hide behind anonymity and spew their hatred for whatever joy it seems to bring them.

Like a good pilot scanning their complicated controls, casual readers should simply ignore those comments; the ones that should garner attention are thoughtful, add to the debate or bring up new and valuable information that demonstrates the writer has first hand knowledge about the events in the article. And, yes, those are often very few and very far between.

" The comments sections on many general-interest news sites lack both the carrot and the stick for encouraging responsible behavior. The carrot is the cohesion of a group you don’t want to disappoint, like Yoshimi25’s Front Burner community. The stick is the shame associated with having your real name publicly attached to embarrassing behavior. Without these two levers, the social contract breaks down." ('Inside the mind of the Anon online poster'. Neil Swidey, Boston Globe)

The Internet has revolutionized the dissemination of news and entertainment; now anyone anywhere in the world can instantly upload an observation, photo, video or full fledged novel for all to see.

"In the old days, we really were the gatekeepers, and if we said we aren't going to say the names of rape victims..we could make that come true. Well, newspaper editors can't do that anymore. We have to exist in a broader, more democratized, sort of rougher edged and less neat and controlled world." (Geneva Overholser, AJR 'Going Public')

Sure the Internet is still a tad rough and tumble, but when you attend an R-rated movie you should know what your getting into and not complain later about the site of a naked body or a little blood and gore. And of course, Internet news sites and blogs can be more like an NC-17 rating.

"The right to free speech and the unfettered practice of free speech are not the same. In a way we are all Robert Cohen ("F_ck the Draft") at Sunday dinner, with legal rights that may have to yield to practical, everyday restrictions on the expression." (Woo, Essay #3)

William Woo makes the reasonable point that just because you can wear a jacket in public with a vulgar word under the banner of free speech doesn't mean your grandmother has to put up with it at a family dinner. Fair enough.

But then, is grandma also going to ban all political talk--no matter how civil--at the dinner table? It's a very fine line. I let it all hang out on 'Only in Amherst' (my posts and comments), allowing the readers to decide what to consume and what not to waste time on.

After all, the First Amendment protects free speech of citizens from government suppression. So if grandma wants to institute stern controls at her house on Sunday she can, or if a privately owned newspaper industry wants to ban Anon comments on their news websites, they most certainly can.

"But it’s the wrong move, the proverbial rocket launcher employed against a housefly. The collateral damage it would bring — a contrived quieting and flattening of the debate, and a closing off of the sorts of scoops and expansive discussions enabled by anonymous commenting — wouldn’t be worth it." ('Freedom of Screech', Jesse Singal, Boston Globe)

Catherine Sanderson, an elected Amherst School Committee member with a refreshing attitude about transparency, recently instituted "comment moderation" on her blog. She posts comments as long as they are somewhat civil, on topic and free of personal attacks on private citizens. However, she still allows Anonymous comments as long as they meet those minimum requirements:

"The key thing is that there are people who WANT to share their thoughts, but can't do so if they will be identified. This includes parents who worry their kid will experience a negative outcome if they criticize the schools, and teachers who worry that their comments will create negative consequences for them if they criticize the schools/their colleagues/parents. I believe those voices are really important to have, and thus I've continued to allow anonymous posters."(Catherine Sanderson, 'Only in Amherst' blog Comment)

On my blog I have chosen to grin and bear abusive Anon comments, but never resist the opportunity to point out how cowardly the mechanism is when relied upon simply to heap abuse. I only delete spam, double posted comments (delete one), libel (I know it when I see it) or certain words that I think should be forever banned from the lexicon of human language: C-word, N-word, but since the Supreme Court has said the F-word is okay, I grudgingly accept it.

What surprised me about the current "No Comment" American Journal Review editorial ( "It's time for news sites to stop allowing anonymous online comments.") is that the stunningly obvious concern over tips from sources who need the protection afforded by a cloak of anonymity was completely ignored.

Recently the Buffalo News (after only allowing comments for just over a year) joined the "G-rated" minority of papers banning all Anon comments from their website. The editor, obviously easily offended, explains:

"Quickly, though, the practice degenerated into something significantly less lofty. Particularly on stories about inner-city crime — but not only on those stories — reader comments can be racist and ugly. In fact, we’ve been shocked at how seemingly routine stories can elicit comments that veer off into offensive territory." (Margaret Sullivan, Buffalo News, 'Seeking a return to civility in online comments'.)

A hyperlocal news site in their readership territory quickly responded:

"While it's disappointing that The News is running away from this issue, it's not at all surprising. The paper has been slow to adapt to the changing media landscape as management continues to hope the world goes back to 1975. They want the internet to go away, but it won't." (Buffalo Rising, 'Buffalo News tells the internet to go away'.)

The real world can be ugly indeed. Journalism is supposed to hold up a mirror to reflect that. And yeah, sometimes the language can be a tad salty.

According to recovered flight data recorders, pilots about to die tend to exclaim the word "shit!" As stunned NY firefighters watched the first plane impale the North Tower on the morning of 9/11, their instant reaction was "Holy shit!"..."Holy shit!"

Holy shit indeed!


Anonymous said...

Newspapers make anonymous postings all the time. They are called editorials. It's like they come down from Mt. Olympus. They are unsigned.

Unknown said...

Interesting blog my friend

Larry Kelley said...

Thanks Steve,

Your comment proves my point.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous speech in the public sphere is as old (and American) as the Boston Tea Party. What was the most memorable phrase in WWII? "Kilroy was here."


Proudly American, Proudly Anonymous

Larry Kelley said...

Indeed. And that chalked phrase often appeared W-A-Y behind enemy lines where "Angels fear to tread."

Ed said...

The 20th Century was not only humanity's bloodiest, but also *the* century of media-as-gatekeeper.

Take the names of those bringing rape allegations -- prior to this, someone would just ask the court officer, now we just Google it -- only during the Media Century could the media keep it quiet.

And I believe that there is a direct relationship between that and it being history's bloodiest century...

Anonymous said...

Based on nothing. Thanks Ed for your unfounded sweeping generalization.

Anonymous said...

Based on nothing other than “[y]ou give me the pictures and I’ll give you the war.”

William Randolph Hearst to Frederic Remington.