Don’t feed the trolls!
That’s what everybody tells me. There’s no point, and next thing you know, they’ll be in front of your house with an AK-47. And I know they are right. But I leave comments on stories anyway, sometimes, even when I know that I’m not going to change any minds. Why do I bother?
Newspapers have, by and large, let story comments turn into ghettos where hate and personal attacks thrive. But smart folks like the ones at Xark and Patrick Thornton, writing here for Poynter, have any number of creative ideas on how to elevate the dialogue. Respond. Create ratings systems. Elevate good comments to prominent positions and perhaps even dedicate a blog post or story to expanding on them. Cultivate a community around your site. Although it’s nigh impossible to guarantee people are using their real names, encourage them to do so.
Comments are a rich source of story ideas, can help reporters verify stories or add critical context and background, and they are especially crucial in a time when studies show that readers come to Web sites expecting greater interactivity.
Even more importantly, one of the core principles of journalism, as noted by Kovach and Rosenstiel, is that it must provide a forum for discussion on issues of critical public importance.
Let me share a brief quote from them: “The news media are the common carriers of public discussion, and this responsibility forms a basis for our special privileges. This discussion serves society best when it is informed by facts rather than prejudice and supposition. It also should strive to fairly represent the varied viewpoints and interests in society, and to place them in context rather than highlight only the conflicting fringes of debate.”
So despite my knowledge that trying to change individuals is more than futile, I sometimes jump into the fray with this principle in mind, hoping that over the long haul, being willing to participate will elevate dialogue. And I figure that if journalists don’t have the courage to stand up to knee-jerk charges of political bias, then at least professors probably should step up to the plate and be willing to, for example, say something is false when it is demonstrably false.
A couple of days ago, one of my professors when I was at Mizzou, Charles Davis, published a column in the Columbia Daily Tribune in which he argued that journalists have not done a good enough job covering the outpouring of hate raging across the nation. In his view as a First Amendment near-absolutist, the more we expose hate for what it really is, covering it openly and rigorously, as journalists once did in the days of the civil rights movement, the more likely it is to shrivel up and go away.
As you might expect, the comments described Davis as a Nazi and similar, as well as predictably trying to assert that calling for civility and for exposing hate for what it is – is somehow politically liberal?
So I left a comment. And as always, I left my real name. I always do. And I challenged the other commenters to do the same.
I will admit I probably could have been more diplomatic myself, but the comments I made were, I thought, fairly benign. One thing I do know for sure is that they weren’t political in nature. You can read them yourself at the end of the article – my name is signed at the end and my handle appearing above the comments is my Twitter name, brizzyc.
Personal attacks rolled predictably in. I was called “smug” and “self-righteous,” among other nice things.
And a woman named Ellie Funke of the Columbia/Jefferson City, MO area took it upon herself to email my boss and one of my colleagues with a link to the article and the following comment: “Not sure if you have seen the articles and ramblings your assistant professor contributes. She and her colleages (sic) are not someone my (sic) will study with”
Sigh. So what is the lesson here? I don’t know, you tell me. Clearly, as one of my colleagues noted, mud wrestling with a pig leaves you both filthy and the pig will enjoy it. But I hate to refuse to participate in public dialogue out of fear.