Sunday, May 16, 2010
Raleigh News and Observer Weighs in on Online Comments
“People do not seem to realize that their opinion of the world is also a confession of character.”
-Ralph Waldo Emerson-
If you've been reading along with me, you know how I feel about anonymous online comments. In earlier posts, I have expressed my concern and displeasure with the ability of the anonymous to verbally eviscerate the people in the news and their families. In the comfort of their own homes, they can, without consequence, pass judgment on any event in the news.
Earlier this spring, I travelled to Raleigh to speak to the News and Observer staff on this very topic, having experienced the hurt of comments written in response to articles published following the death of Stephen. Here's a link to my post talking about that visit.
Following that meeting, I have periodically heard from the Mr. Drescher/News and Observer. They have grappled with this issue and tried to, as a staff, come to a solution as to how to handle the issue of negative online commenting, while still providing an open forum for people to express their opinion. I appreciate that they listened to my concerns and have taken the time out of their busy schedules to discuss the issue further.
On Saturday, John Drescher, Executive Editor wrote a column on the topic:
After reading it a few times, I wanted to share some thoughts.
It appears that no immediate solution has been reached, no committee came back with a unanimous solution to this problem as I had hoped. But as I read this a second time, I could understand why. You see, the second time I read the article, I also took the time to read the three pages of comments.
Raleigh News and Observer readers like the ability to comment on articles, and pass their opinion. They feel they are entitled to do so as part of their rights and freedoms as a citizen of this country. Others like to read the banter back and forth, and, in some cases, that banter is truly a productive dialogue about current issues.
So, how do we protect the individuals and families that newspapers write about from unnecessary hurt and anguish? Is it right to police a system to protect everyone from just a few people, knowing that the majority of comments are thoughtful and appropriate? It's kind of like an elementary school situation, where the whole class is punished for the behaviour of a few individuals who wouldn't fess up and tell the teacher that they were responsible.
Mr. Drescher said he does not want to have a staff person full time monitoring this situation, when they could be reporting.
Well, he has a point. But, on the flip side, one could say by not monitoring, he is allowing the anonymous to represent his publication. Because on the day I read the comments about my child, that anonymous person represented his newspaper as much as he did . One of the comments on Saturday's column said that parents like me just shouldn't read the comments. No offense lady, but walk a mile in my shoes for a week or two and see how passive you would be about words written about your baby, when all you have left to protect is his memory.
I have two solutions, and they are both based on a society that encourages free speech, but it is also a culture that respects its fellow citizens.
1. Disable comments for sensitive stories, especially involving the death of an individual: Perhaps the solution lies in disabling the comment sections for those stories covering sensitive topics only, like the death of individuals. Other publications have already decided to do this, and I applaud their forward thinking. Perhaps it should become a standard practice before posting something that a staff person goes through an established set of criteria to determine if a story should have a comments section or not. Don't assume that bereaved families will not read these stories. When you lose someone, especially suddenly, you look everywhere for some explanation, even in your publications. Some may say that they have a right to comment, and they do. But it does not have to be in this forum.
2. Have readers take personal accountability: I don't think this is only the job of the newspaper to fix this problem. I believe we are all responsible to make this world into what we want it to be. Each one of us could tell a story of heartache and loss. Unfortunately, none of us are immune from pain, nor will we live forever. Tragedy comes and goes, and no family ever breezes through life without being touched by loss, it is part of the journey. So, my second solution is for each reader of the News and Observer or any other publication to speak out. Start reporting abuse and make it a point to have those comments removed. When I reported my concerns to the News and Observer, they quickly removed the abusive remarks. If enough individuals did this consistently, we could make a difference. If enough individuals made this commitment, the anonymous commenter may eventually understand that they live in a society that does not support that sort of behaviour.
I am not against online comments. On the contrary, I believe in the power of free speech. Censorship is not a solution. I believe in my right to post my blog posts daily, and express my own unique and personal opinion. I am not against anything.
I am for kindness. I am for respect and dignity for those who are hurting. I am for a culture that understands that free speech is not the same thing as hate speak. I am for a society that thinks about how their words will be received. I am for a world that realizes we all have a responsibility to make this a better place.
In Mr. Drescher's column, he presents us with two different online commenting situations. The two instances are great examples of how this new way of communicating and sharing our lives online can be a wonderful thing and a hurtful thing all at the same time.
At points in all of our lives, we will need the world to just be kind to us, if only briefly. Let's stand up and take responsibility for ensuring that happens. Let's make a change together, and not let another mother or father have to read anything negative about a child they have lost, no matter what the circumstances are surrounding their death.
If you have other suggestions, I would encourage you to let me know, pass them along to the Raleigh News and Observer, or your own local publication.
Wishing you a stand up for what's right kind of day,