It was in 2014, at the peak of the Virgin Islands General Election, when I received the worst trolling to a story I wrote — the worst, because it’s the last thing any journalist wants to hear.
At the center of the article was the possibility of a gubernatorial runoff, which the controversial hand-count of the ballots was slowly proving imminent. One reader, clearly a supporter of one ticket, took issue with the headline, saying it was misleading and should have been phrased differently. I was “desperate,” he wrote, to make it appear as if the other candidate had a chance. Like most local media, he said, I delivered biased, partisan news.
I was horrified. I felt that the accusation was unfair and knew it was patently untrue. So I did what I was supposed to do: I brought it to the attention of my editors and publisher, asking if we should indeed make any changes to the disputed headline. After some deliberation, it was decided that the headline stays, and so does the reader’s comment. I was also advised to grow hurricane-proof skin because that won’t be the last acerbic comment I get from anyone, unfounded or not.
Then I hear about this other local “news” website that blocked readers and stripped them of commenting privileges when they called out the site’s inaccuracies and factual errors.
Cue my graduate journalism professor: Should news outfits allow online comments? Should we allow readers to comment away unfettered? Should we be using words like “unfettered” at all?
Such questions, in fact, became moot a long time ago, when the Internet was born and ended the era of a mass media controlled by a few.
Like any product released to the public, news stories are not exempt from critique. Consumers of news have in fact been critiquing the whole time. The only difference is, in more traditional platforms — newspapers, radio, television — the means of expressing such critiques are limited — by airtime, by word limit on a page, by clout or influence. The average person watching news on TV can’t just react on-air, and the most a reader can do is send a letter to the editor or write an opinion piece, hoping it gets published.
Which is why the Internet is a wonderful thing. This increasingly digital world is breaking down walls and leveling the playing field, making consumers producers at the same time, on a platform that is (literally) virtually available to everyone. Gone are the days of tossing our products out into the void without much regard for what consumers think. Nowadays, not only are consumers able to respond to news; the power and prevalence of the Internet are such that users can be makers of news.
In “The World is Flat,” New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman lists historical turning points that flattened the world, events that reduced power distances and chipped away at the usual barriers — class, politics, religion. For those of us in the business of information, the Internet just demolished the barrier of privileged access to means of reaching the masses. The fact that any online content with a public URL can be shared, embedded, and yes, riddled with unsolicited comments, makes an illusion out of any choice we think we have on the matter.
For better or worse, comments on online content are unstoppable.
But going back even further, is this not what journalists do — inform and stimulate conversation on issues that impact many? We report with as much accuracy, as much objectivity as our humanity allows, so people are armed with information that they may need, for whatever cause they may be fighting. As a journalist, I hope I have the grace to remember why people’s review of what I write — from the glowing to the scathing — are a major end of the journalistic enterprise, and when I get comments that drive me up a wall, I hope I have the wisdom to realize that reaction is better than apathy.
I hope I don’t have to swallow my own idealism too often, too. Sheesh.