January 2015 APME News

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4:02 PM

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By Ken Paulson

Free speech and readers: It’s the conversation that matters


t’s been almost eight years since USA Today embraced the then-new idea of inviting readers to comment on stories. I was the editor in 2007 and we thought enough of the concept to dub it “Network Journalism.” You may know it as hate speech. Rather than encourage “the nation’s conversation” we hoped for, many of the comments quickly proved rancorous, racist, sexist and mean. I vividly remember the USA Today staff’s initial reaction to those first postings: “These can’t be our readers.” Of course, we weren’t the only news organization posting comments, and in time, combative and angry comments became the norm for most media websites. We nonetheless embraced comments because they helped drive traffic and in theory, created a bond with readers, even if these weren’t necessarily the kind of people you would want to bond with. Little wonder that many in the media are taking a fresh look at comments sections: This month, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch suspended comments on its editorials, saying the post-Ferguson posts were often “vile and racist.” In November, Reuters eliminated comments on new stories, suggesting that commenters instead gravitate to Twitter and Facebook. In April, Chicago Sun-Times Managing Editor Craig Newman announced the suspension of comments until a better model can be developed. “We are not doing away with comments,” Newman wrote. “But we do want to take some time and work on the qualitative aspect of how they are handled and how we can foster a productive discussion rather than an embarrassing mishmash of fringe ranting and ill-informed, shrill bomb-throwing.” In 2013, Popular Science dropped comments entirely, noting “Comments can be bad for science.” Are hateful comments bad for journalism? Or as beneficiaries of the First Amendment, do we have an obligation to ensure that all views – even the anonymous and vicious –


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get aired? We probably don’t owe anyone a soapbox. The mission of a free press in America is to keep an eye on people in power and keep the public informed. Letting others blow off steam has some value, but it’s not high on a list of journalistic priorities. The First Amendment says “Congress shall make no law,” not “editors shall make no rules.” In fact, we have a free press right to publish – or choose not to. Still, we’re missing a tremendous opportunity if we just shut down the trolls. Truly engaging with readers – and not just offering a blank wall on which to vent – is a critical mission for all news organizations. Steve Buttry, Lamar family visiting scholar at LSU’s Manship School of Mass Communication, has written thoughtfully about building ties to readers. He notes that news organizations need to work with the public on multiple fronts, including hosting group blogs in areas of community interest, embracing community networks and of course, using social media effectively “in doing better journalism.” And that may be the real problem with comments sections. It’s too easy to believe we’re interacting with readers when in fact we’ve just given angry people a place to shout. If our goal is to live up to First Amendment responsibilities by tapping the insights of our readers, we need fresh approaches. That includes making better use of the content posted on social media beyond our walls, and finding ways to have more meaningful relationships with our readers. It’s not the comments that matter. It’s the collective conversation that helps us build awareness, understanding and consensus in the communities we serve. n Ken Paulson is the dean of the College of Mass Communication at Middle Tennessee State University and president of the First Amendment Center in Nashville. He can be reached at ken.paulson@mtsu.edu