Last year, I covered a community’s frantic search for a 7-year-old girl who slipped out of her home and wandered away.
Scores of volunteers and police officers, along with tracking dogs and a police helicopter, looked everywhere.
After several hours, a neighbor discovered the girl in his home when he walked inside. The girl asked him not to tell anyone; she was afraid she’d get in trouble.
I liked the resolution of the story. Most volunteer searchers didn’t know the family, which was new to the area. Yet many people rejoiced when the girl was found. It was a sweet scene of relief and acceptance for a family that, from what I could tell, was not having an easy time.
The next day, I looked at the story on my newspaper’s Web site, and my mood sank. These were some of the reader comments posted online, directly below the story:
•“justacitizen,” interpreting a line I wrote, decided the girl didn’t have “the body language of a child happy to be in the arms that are holding her.”
•“warriorgal” concluded that the child was being abused.
•“wakeupsocsvs” — a reference, I assume, to Social Services — seized on the fact that the girlfriend of the girl’s mother didn’t want to tell me her last name. The couple must have had “issues” where they lived before, this anonymous poster proclaimed.
•“jjent” said something vicious and inhumane about “surplus population.”
As this slime pit of prejudice — based on race, sexual orientation and class — settled under the online version of my story, I could only imagine what wise words “outraged,” another anonymous poster, had offered on our Web site. The administrator had deleted the comment.
Because of fiascoes like this, my newspaper no longer offers an instant-feedback function after stories. But, like so many other media outlets, my paper is working on ways to embrace and encourage online discussion.
Full throttle, hundreds of newspapers are establishing themselves online in a deeper way than just posting stories at a Web site. Through chat rooms and polls, readers are encouraged, in many ways, to join the discussion, instantly.
I’ve seen some good uses for online talk, such as The Washington Post’s frequent live chats with staffers and newsmakers. They run like press conferences or group interviews.
What’s troubling is that so much of this online initiative is driven by what’s legal instead of what’s ethical. The conventional wisdom, as I’ve heard it, is that media organizations should mostly leave online debate alone, aside from rules of conduct (don’t yell in CAPITAL LETTERS) and standards of decency (no profanity, please).
As a result, most newspapers accept a double standard for public feedback as they expand into the online world.
When someone writes a letter to the editor, newspapers require a signature, confirm authorship and tell everyone who you are: These are Jane Doe’s views.
Generally, we don’t print anonymous opinions, which are automatically suspect.
We let readers know about affiliations (president of the chamber) or potential biases (campaign manager for Candidate X).
We set similar benchmarks for people we quote in news stories.
The standards should be high. Anonymity may be granted, in a news story or for a letter to the editor, if there’s a compelling reason. We explain why.
With online comments, we do the opposite. We let people hide behind a screen name and hurl insults, which we may or may not scrub from the Web site, depending on whether someone has noticed or complained.
The result is a lower level of discourse. Amusement and rants replace reasoned debate. And, by setting up this process, we solicit and encourage anonymous nonsense and barbs. We’re responsible.
Some newspapers insert the spouts that they solicited online into their printed pages. It’s known as “reverse publishing,” printing transcripts of the chat forums, and it’s seen as progressive.
Our newspaper brand should signify sophistication, fairness and trust in everything we do.
The further we push ourselves into the online Wild West, with no thought about the ethical standards, the more “jjent” and “wakeupsocsvs” represent our communities and steer our debates.