One of the things about new media that gives me fits are the message boards and readers’ forums. I hate ‘em and I think when analysts of everything that is wrong with journalism today point to one of the areas where we are failing as information providers it’s to do in part with the ease with which information moves outside the capacity of professional journalists to do their jobs — of which readers’ forums are a part.
Recently I read a story that appeared in an area newspaper about a fatal accident involving a father and son. While the story named both as involved in the crash, it would not, could not establish their kinship. Meanwhile, Facebook had lit up about the accident and about both individuals, hence leaving the formal, professional writeup in the dust. If the function of newspapers is to provide information to our readers, we will have to contend mightily with social media, which takes the thoughtful, often difficult work of professional journalism and instantly makes “journalists” of darn near anybody.
Newspapers’ message boards are also a product of social media, despite predating Facebook. And newspapers likewise must contend with what it determines is allowable to say on them.
A story that ran on Monday on the Spirit’s website and that was teased on our Facebook page about the sentencing of former Jefferson County Sheriff Robert “Bobby” Shirley provoked a strong reaction from readers, with some criticizing the Spirit for aiding in bringing about Shirley’s downfall. As the conversation mounted, there was some discussion among the editors here about whether to take down the comments that sought to blame the Spirit.
Clearly the Spirit rejects the opinion that by reporting the government and Mark Daniel Haines’ legal cases against Shirley that we were somehow siding with Haines and attacking Shirley. That’s just nonsense. For anyone who thinks, however, that Shirley was in the right in stomping on Haines’ head, I’d ask that you perform a little exercise. Take a video still of the moment Shirley’s boot touches Haines’ head. Print it. Paste it on a newspaper’s editorial page where the editorial cartoon usually goes. Take a felt tip marker and label Shirley “Shirley” and label Haines “Bill of Rights.”
Now step back and view your first published work as an editorial cartoonist. Despite what Haines did or did not do, he remained at that moment prior to his arrest an innocent man in the eyes of the law. It remained for a court of law, not a booted kick to the head, to make a determination otherwise.
But on the matter of what comments ought to be allowed to remain on the Spirit’s Facebook page, our editors’ opinions split along two lines — one opinion was that to leave objectionable comments up was to send the message to our readers that we don’t monitor our page. The other point of view: to take down objectionable comments runs the risk that the Spirit censors negative comments.
It’s my belief that a forum to speak is a forum to speak and sometimes things are going to be said that rub us at the Spirit the wrong way. It’s my belief that that’s not cause for taking down such comments or blocking or banning a reader – even when the poster is using the Spirit’s Facebook page to describe a “boycott” of the newspaper.
As far as I’m concerned, all are welcome to take part in our forum for as long as they want.
For the record, the Spirit of Jefferson does monitor our website and our Facebook page. It matters to us that comments left there be those that advance the conversation, for good or ill.
After all, if we only allowed good news on our printed pages, I suspect our readers would seek their information elsewhere.
— Robert Snyder