Why News Media Must Embrace Online Rules
By Edward Wasserman
As traditional news outfits migrate online to become dot-coms,
one of their biggest headaches is how to adapt to the sprawling
new frontier of public comment.
In the pre-Internet world of TV and newspapers, public comment
wasn't a problem. Broadcast news didn't have any aside from
the weekly guest spot, usually some hapless civic association
president reading from a prompter and staring terrified into
the camera. Papers had their letters pages, but allowed only
enough space for a few dozen a week, and they were generally
written with care and were easy to prune for taste and diction.
Things were nicely under control.
But on the Internet, public comment isn't kitchen table talk,
it's saloon brawl. Postings are sharp and rough-and-tumble.
Harsh and derisive exchanges are common. So are personal attacks.
Chat rooms and message boards routinely allow people to post
comments anonymously. Only when postings are so egregious, so
outrageous, racist or vile that other participants cough up
hairballs do managers strike the comments and banish the authors.
That's the cyber pond traditional news organizations are diving
into. They understand that their own futures hinge on re-establishing
online the central role in civic life that they've played offline.
So they are eager to host forums where people in the communities
they serve go first to offer comment.
So they embrace the rambunctious discourse of the Internet
with the zeal of the convert and the sweaty fervor of the desperate:
Got something to say? Tell us!
Editors who would never dream of running an unsigned letter-to-the-editor
now argue for promiscuous anonymity.
And taste and civility, respectfulness Old-line values of a
discredited media elite.
I exaggerate, but not that much. The new guiding principle is
hands-off. At an American Society of Newspaper Editors workshop
I attended recently in California, some very good and high-powered
online journalists not the consensus, admittedly suggested that
even screening postings would drive commentators to other websites,
where they could speak their minds without restraint. And that
would be ruinous to newspapers' online strategies.
The Organization of News Ombudsmen, a group I admire and to
which I belong, has an e-mail thread right now soliciting input
on how news organizations should handle public comment: Is to
OK to block anti-immigrant rants, to weed out defamation, to
protect privacy and attempt to enforce some standards of reasonable
expression? What about unsigned comment?
Some organizations argue that they are providing a public space,
which they don't have the right, let alone the duty, to regulate.
It will look after itself.
But is the marketplace of ideas self-regulating? Is defamation
canceled out by testimonials, falsehoods by truth? Or does Internet
talk promise another sad case of what the late ecologist Garrett
Hardin called the "tragedy of the commons:" each individual
herdsman benefits from putting one more head of cattle onto
public pasture, and suffers little from cumulative overgrazing.
In time, though, community disaster ensues.
In this case, the extreme license given individuals to vent,
dissemble, excoriate and indulge their hates verbally, winds
up destroying the expressive freedom that other people, less
bold and less opinionated, need. Venturing an opinion, even
a sound one, just isn¹t worth the risk. The overall result
is a less expansive, less robust sphere of expression and sound,
worthwhile thoughts aren't shared.
Public conversation exchanging ideas about what a community
is and ought to be is something that has to be learned. Unfortunately,
mainstream media have made a fortune teaching people the wrong
ways to talk to each other, offering up Jerry Springer, Crossfire,
Bill O'Reilly. People understandably conclude rage is the political
vernacular, that this is how public ideas are talked about.
It isn't. With the move online, journalism has the opportunity
to morph into a practice based not just on information gathering
and narrative skill, but of stewardship, of presiding over a
community-wide conversation about what's going on and what matters.
Those message boards and chat rooms aren't just market extension
opportunities for media owners. They're warm and busy spaces
where a new world of expression and communication is incubating.
To say there should be rules, that communicants should be admonished
to strive for honesty and civility and respect, is not to justify
elitism. It's not even to prescribe the rules.
But it's to acknowledge that rules are needed, and to kick off
the process of writing them.
Edward Wasserman is Knight Professor in Journalism Ethics
at Washington and Lee University. This article, which appeared
originally on the Washington and Lee Web site, reports on a
conference hosted by the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics.