I was at the University of California at Berkeley last week with 19 other journalists from across the country. One of our conversations at this multimedia workshop was about how to police the Web without turning it into a police state.
There was a protest Friday in front of Mother Courant. About 60 people complained about abusive, racist and personal attacks in comments posted by readers of Courant.com. This was the latest example that newspapers are still haphazardly navigating a digital world its sees as the chief means for survival.
Digital's allure is all about intimacy and immediacy.
Breaking news can be posted instantaneously. Readers can instantly participate in the news coverage by providing — anonymously mostly — perspective, insight and, yeah, ignorance to the conversation.
The protest was a reflection of how a city made up predominantly of Latinos and blacks has been historically disengaged from The Courant and never enamored of its coverage. They've been feeling even more belittled, stereotyped and demeaned by racist comments on the website connected to recent criminal acts in the city.
The gathering, led by Mayor Eddie Perez, was also a veiled attempt to deflect attention from rising concerns about crime in his city. As the fear index increases, Perez still boasts that the crime numbers are actually down.
"Hey Eddie, you need to be this angry about real problems," read a placard carried by William Griggs, 33, a city resident. He works for New Mass Media Inc., a subsidiary of The Courant.
The rally was mostly significant in that it exposed the emerging vulnerability and hypocrisy of newspapers, including The Courant. We've struggled to retain readership and advertisers and to fully embrace the digital mode of information distribution. As an industry, newspapers are losing their moral compass and authority in a desperate attempt to retain profits.
It's embarrassing that this newspaper's criteria for civil dialogue are not carried over to its website. While trying to be hip and innovative in promoting open dialogue, many newspaper websites have lowered their standards for engagement.
"We're definitely in a transition phase from legacy media with its rules, practices and standards to the new media, which is right now without standards," says Rich Hanley, assistant professor of journalism at Quinnipiac University. "There definitely needs to be an adult in the room. ... So, newspapers like The Courant are just caught in the middle of this transition. They want people to come and comment, but they have a legacy to uphold of reasoned discourse that is at a higher level than is ordinarily in an online environment."
Friday's protesters urged The Courant, the nation's oldest — and dearest — newspaper to live up to those ideals.The digital community leans on the notion that "policing its own" is all the oversight needed.
Mindless comments don't bother me as much as the forum established for folks to do so anonymously. A simple fix would be to have Web readers register before they comment. Some say this would result in fewer readers, but there is no reason to believe readership will suffer simply because respondents will be held accountable.
"Flaming" rhetoric has become all the rage in digital discourse. Good old-fashioned street protests, however, can still have sway too.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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