The modern journalism role includes guiding constructive conversations

Here’s another plea for news sites to require registration and some expectation of real identity from site participants.

But if news is moving from being a lecture to a conversation with readers, then readers must be as transparent and play by the same ethical rules as the media. Certainly, unfettered, ugly, racist, personal and similar sorts of rants do not contribute to civic discourse, but rather undermine it.

If we believe that professional journalism, however it might evolve, has value in the modern media world, then we need to accept a role that goes beyond merely posting the news.

We need to:

  • Start conversations — conversation starters includes our journalism, the things we relate and report, but we should also be offering context and questions that help guide conversations;
  • Participate in the conversation — be active in the conversations we start, adding context, information and clarifications as necessary;
  • Set standards — We make the rules, we enforce them, we offer guidance (including providing some ethical context) for civil, constructive participation, and we set the example for participation.

If we do these things, pre-screening comments becomes largely unnecessary. Healthy moderator participation — and I’ve had a lot of experience doing this — squelches most uncivil participation.

Technical solutions also play a role:

  • “Require” real identity (100 percent enforcement impossible, but the effort will go a long way toward keeping people civil;
  • Use reputation tools, such as thumbs up/down on posts and hiding unpopular posts;
  • Tie participation to socially networked profiles, which brings about greater transparency on identity and persona;
  • Make first-time participants go through moderation and e-mail validation;
  • Let banned users post, but hide their comments from everybody but themselves.

Part of the new responsibility of the modern journalist, of the wired news organization, is to foster a locally focus online community. It is our job, the way I see it, that we should be hosting all of the most important discussions in our communities. This isn’t just an audience growth strategy (though it will do that), it is part of our charter. In a way, it always has been.

The people in our communities know stuff. They’re smart. They have insights. They often have a greater institutional knowledge than many of the people on a newspaper staff. They can help other members of the community — including the paid journalists — grow, learn and understand. They can help us all make better decisions, whether it’s about who to vote for or which charity to support.

The whole community can become smarter through the conversations we host.

Isn’t it appropriate that a journalistic organization, which I’ve always believed has an obligation to illuminate and inform, should be the hub of community conversation?

If we look at online conversation from this higher-responsibility prism, then don’t we have an obligation to not only host the conversation, but to ensure we do our level best to keep the conversation civil and constructive.

If that is the case, then we need to do everything we can to keep the bad actors, the disruptors and the trolls out of our conversations.

This is why I support real identity for participation. And this is why I believe that every journalist has an obligation to be digitally literate. Real identity is necessary to a journalisticly sound conversation (it’s a matter of ethics and transparency), and only digitally literate journalists can be master conversation guides, leaders and participants.

And being a participant should be henceforth written into every reporter and editors job description.

UPDATE: I forgot to include appropriate credit — link via Martin Stabe.

5 thoughts on “The modern journalism role includes guiding constructive conversations

  1. Howard: There’s obviously nothing wrong with forcing real identities. But there remains merit as well in allowing people to post anonymously. Many people want to say something about a controversial story, add light to the heat, but cannot for fear that they’ll be fired or sued or prosecuted.

    Case in point: The state’s trying to force a hospital in our area to close down its ER and inpatient beds. The hospital has begun talks with a neighboring hospital about combining as a way to save services in the threatened hospital. When we ran that story, the few comments from both hospitals were very general and cautious. But an employee at the hospital posted, anonymously, in the comments, that the threatened hospital had circulated a memo to staff that offered some very specific and relevant details. Forced registration would have prevented this information from coming to light.

    Also, I’m not sure it’s fair to force readers to do what we are not willing to do. The press allows sources to comment anonymously all the time — way too often, in my view.

    Our policy is simple: You can comment, but no personal attacks. You get a little more leeway if you give your real name (we see their e-mail addresses and it’s fairly simple to spot fakes) than if you post anonymously.

    We’re a small publication, so we only get 10 – 20 comments a day. Perhaps this doesn’t work for larger publications with scores of comments, but it should., the huge regional website in our area, allows pseudonymous comments on articles and in forums and protects identities. It moderates postings after a complaint, which means that entire post threads will disappear without any notice of what the complaint was. There’s an area that could use some transparency.

    (By the way — the largest portion of comments on our sites are made on obituaries. Just in case you’re interested.)

  2. Dave, the bit about obits is interesting, but not surprising.

    Also, I pretty much hate the use of anonymous sources in stories. It should be done only rarely.

    There would be nothing wrong with an “anonymous news tip” form, but if people want to participate in the conversation, they should tell us who they are. At least with an anonymous source in a news story, a reporter (with editor oversight) has supposedly done some leg work to verify the reliability of the source or his information, including potential conflicts that might cloud the anonymous information; on a comment, we only have the naked comment with no verification of identity, agenda, or reliability of the source. So I think there is a difference there.

    I think the readers deserve as much information as possible to help them decide for themselves the reliability of the post.

    Again, I’m not asking for perfection in application, just saying there is ethically a journalistic obligation to do our best.

  3. As someone who’s gone to great lengths to keep my identity secret, I think you put too much emphasis on use of real identity.

    At a newspaper site of any size, the real id requirement merely means that someone will have to pick a handle that sounds like a real name. So Heywood Jablome is out, but Fred Smith is in. Someone who wants to be disruptive will simply pick a reasonable-sounding name and go on to do their dirty work. Since trolls can assume identities, all you’re really doing is leaving out the cautious – i.e., those who don’t want a google search to reveal everything they’ve said anywhere online.

    I understand your point about wanting to use social network signons, but I think the open use of Facebook and MySpace accounts is going to be relatively short-lived. At the moment, sites like Facebook and MySpace have a lot of open access to “real people” on them. I think we’re going to see a major correction when the teens and twenty-somethings who are using Facebook get a little older and realize that they don’t want their embarrassing teen years available for all to google.

  4. But if news is moving from being a lecture to a conversation with readers, then readers must be as transparent and play by the same ethical rules as the media.

    I think that’s a big “must” to expect from readers, especially when we can’t get all the journalists to play by those ethical rules (and don’t get me started on the inherent conflicts of interests of some media companies).

    Are we going to require every reader to go through a short course on the SPJ code of ethics?

    I’m all for doing everything to keep the conversation on a high level, but resist the notion that a real identification should be “required,” at least until such time as there are laws in place that prevent people from being punished in meatspace for something they might say online.

  5. I find it hard to believe real identification could be a reasonable goal, given the reports of harassment and stalking, especially against female pundits. Anonymity allows people with real fear to state opinions and to report without suffering the very real consequences of receiving death threats.

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