The internet offers readers the ability to instantly respond to a story. In fact, with new, new media, such instant interactivity is expected by consumers and largely considered required by the producers of many websites. Stalwart, and traditional media that have converted their original papers and magazines to a digital platform, however, do not always offer such forums or limit and edit them before putting them on their sites.
The questions that arise are many, but I’d like to focus on the following
- Should reputable news agencies incorporate comment forums attached to news stories?
- How do anonymous or pseudonymous comments impact discourse on the internet?
- Should journalists be allowed to participate in these threads?
I will offer my thoughts now, but will surely refine them as I continue in the media criticism course I’m currently taking. First I’ll give you a brief summary of my ideas on the evolution of media.
The ever evolving adaptations of a Baby Boomer
I’m old school. While I have adapted to modern technology and enjoy the many advantages of the Internet, I believe some things are best left in their original format…like Coke Classic and Levi’s 501 jeans. I’m not saying change has little value, but why mess too much with success? Ah, but times they are a changing…
The Journalistic tradition of one way communication in newspapers and TV news broadcasts, have informed, guided, amused, and outraged consumers since they began. Responses were contained to letters to the editors or TV stations. If you made a succinct enough point, you may have your letter published or read on the air. Before new new media arrived on our computer screens, we relied on journalists, who were impartial experts, to gather and disseminate news. Editors and fact checkers helped insure accuracy of the stories. They did so because the reputation of the paper was at stake and there was time to spend on these important processes before going to print.
Fast forward to today’s instant world of 24 hour information overload on the Internet. Old media, having to play catch-up with newer, more popular forms of news gathering, have digitized their formats not only to cut costs but to compete with the immediacy of new media. Backpack journalists simultaneously shoot footage, Tweet live from the scene, blog and write news stories.
Where everyone is an expert…including the reader
The largest change in exchanging information through digital media, is that anyone can produce a story, video, Twitter feed, Podcast, website, Facebook page, etc. Because anyone can produce content, we often homogenized our views about the content. Everything on the Internet looks equal in quality and importance. The Internet allows anyone to look “official” and “reliable” with a basic knowledge of how to put things on a site.
Studies show that many users of the Internet overrate the reliability of sites and seldom check the credibility of what they’re consuming. So it’s not a shock that we often forget the vast differences true journalists offer. These are dedicated professionals trained to gather, analyze, and write factual accounts of events. Here, I am talking about reputable news sites and not the infotainment sites that has a thin veneer of “news” surrounded by entertaining audiences so the site can run advertisements.
Back to the questions
Because of social media, where everyone has a platform in a virtually interactive world, people expect all forms of communication to be openly interactive. Instant feedback is the norm. Even TV news have scrolling”tickers” on the screen with live Tweets and secondary news bulletins.
If reputable news sites don’t offer some response mechanism, I fear they’ll become the dinosaurs of the digital age.
I do believe some form of commentary space should be provided on reputable news sites. I do not believe it should be a free-for-all conversation. News sites are specific in their intent and content. If you’ve looked at comment forums, you’ve seen the crazy, off topic remarks that hijack the conversation and turn it into a virtual slug fest. I think this lowers the professionalism of the site, creating a space where people go just to “watch the fight” or worse, join in. There are many other Internet platforms that act as a modern-day version of the market place of ideas.
The anonymous comments, while having a place on some forums, tend to, frankly, drive me up a tree. If you feel strongly enough to comment on something, why wouldn’t you want to stand behind your words? I believe the anonymity of the Internet gives some a free pass to spill vile and vindictive ideas where they really don’t belong.
Some people wreak havoc on the Internet as a hobby. People like to stir the pot. Posting responses that you wouldn’t ever say in a face to face conversation is known as online dis-inhibition. I believe papers have the right to require knowledge of who is responding. Accountability and the idea that people may know who you are, makes a huge difference in the responses likely to be posted.
“Discourse: written or spoken communication or debate.” This sounds a lot loftier than many of the personal attacks and inane comments I’ve seen at the bottom of some news stories.
Reporters strive to get their facts straight, but those commenting don’t have to. Every day folk sometimes spout myths, hearsay, gossip, personal beliefs, and outright lies as “gospel”. By having the comments evaluated, the paper can assure a fair and equal display of various viewpoints from readers. Yes, it may be seen as editorial dictatorship to some, but there’s nothing stopping these people from going onto their favorite digital platforms and posting their opinions about the subject. Irritatingly, open comment fields can be hijacked to advertise a business or website and becomes free “ad space.” These post have little to do with the article, but simply attempt to take readers away from the site.
I’m not saying someone shouldn’t be able to freely express themselves. But if you can’t stamp your name on it, or let your mother read it, you might want to think twice about what you’ve written for public consumption. Maybe I’m selfish and want to maintain the role of professionals in the media, but soon, I hope to go forth into the world and work in a manner that sets me apart from “Granny246@gigglegram.com”.
JOURNALISTS RESPONDING TO COMMENTS, OH MY!
And lastly, I think journalists should refrain from making any comments other than to clarify or correct mistakes. They should not get into a one to one with people. The idea that a journalist should remain neutral seems to be archaic; especially in light of conservative and liberal news programs that are heavily biased. However, by not openly tipping one’s hand in arguing a point or disagreeing with a reader, the journalist maintains that neutrality. Professional societies, like the Society of Professional Journalism, have a code of ethics for journalists.
Personal blogs and social media platforms would be a better place to express personal beliefs. Journalists have a right to freedom of expression as private citizens, but should serve as a more controlled and thoughtful voice when doing their job.