OPINION — Before I entered the world of journalism, I taught high school language arts. One of my goals was to get kids to understand how common themes play out in literature, even as far back as Shakespeare, and to find ways students could relate to those themes in their everyday lives.
One of my favorite books to teach was John Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men.” Through a plot that masterfully shows three full character arcs in only about 100 pages, the story provides great opportunities to discuss issues still very present today: the treatment of women, black people and the disabled.
These are hot button topics, but I wanted the students to be able to talk about them, to discuss their experiences and opinions in a productive forum. And how did I go about this? The first two rules in my classroom were simple: 1- Believe in yourself, your opinions and your convictions, and 2- Respect others, their opinions and their convictions.
So why do I bring this up? Well, I’ve been meaning to write this editorial for a few weeks. I had several different ways I was considering starting it, from “Don’t make me pull this car over” to “This is not your playground, and I don’t have time to be your babysitter.”
When I realized the common theme all involved children, I was taken back to my teaching years, but I dare say my students had more respect for each other than I see in the comments of St. George News. I’ll go further and say I’ve seen some comments that sound more like middle schoolers penned them.
The behavior demonstrated has been enough of an issue over the past couple months to incite more than a few discussions among our editorial board, with options being proposed from doing absolutely nothing to shutting down the comments section entirely, something that has happened at some pretty big media outlets.
But before I did something so extreme, I wanted to bring the issue to our readers, to talk about it with you and see what you think.
When I heard that some media outlets were shutting down their forums, I did a little research to try to find out the reactions, because honestly, while I don’t want to shut down ours, the amount of time we spend trying to moderate comments, to decide if a particular turn of phrase crosses the line, could be better spent doing other things … like bringing you the news.
But again, the journalist in me railed against the idea. This is “free speech” after all, right? So I started digging.
An article in Breitbart called it “The Left’s War on Comments” and said it was the result of left-leaning media outlets trying to shut down commenters who would dare to disagree with what their journalists have written. That would stand to reason given their use of The Verge and Daily Beast as examples.
However, they lost a little bit of traction with me when they equated columnists with journalists. At St. George News, we are very clear to label our columnists’ pieces with “OPINION,” and we are pleased to offer commentary from a more conservative writer (“Right On”), a more liberal writer (“On the EDge”) and a libertarian (“Perspectives”), as well as a broad spectrum of letters to the editor.
So it’s not the political lean of commenters rallying against our content that bothers me. Depending on which columnist is writing, we always get someone who is unhappy with the content.
And it’s not our practice to block a reader for their political opinions. Just as an example, over the weekend we ran an article on Mitt Romney, and let me tell you, readers took to the comments on that one, with probably 90 percent of them being conservative Republican.
So this is not my war against the comments section. My first responsibility is to my readers.
But it’s a responsibility to all our readers, and while the topic of comments at St. George News has been more prevalent the past couple months, it has been an issue for much longer. Over the years, we have tried various approaches to let our readers have their say, regardless of opinion.
For a while, we tried letting pretty much everything through, provided there was no obscenity or blatant hate speech. This was, after all, supposed to be a forum for discussion of the articles. Doing anything else would certainly stifle discourse.
This concern was shared by readers of The Atlantic when they chose to shut down their comments section, citing commenters who “traffic in snark and ad hominem attacks and even racism, misogyny, homophobia, and anti-Muslim and anti-Jewish invective” and opting to put more emphasis instead on letters submitted by readers.
However, one reader said the shift to letters wasn’t as productive to discourse. Jim Hronek wrote:
One cannot have the same sort of think-on-your feet, conversational interactions via a curated letters section that one can have in a comments section exchange. … I visit your website every day, read numerous articles, and comment in what I consider to be a thoughtful fashion. I have changed a few minds on a few matters here. I have had my mind changed as well. … Make no mistake: Your actions will quash the opportunity for genuine debate and education for numerous people.
Well, that’s hard to argue with. But while I have seen some good discussion on our articles, let’s take a look at some of the types of comments we see on a daily basis.
“Take your liberal progressive stupidity and go sit in the corner with your coloring book! I say more relevant things in a day than you will in your lifetime. It’s better than throwing immature tantrums like you do! Waah waaah waaah! Get back in the corner. You lose again.”
“As long as your precious orange Dotard isn’t winning, I’m good.”
“All I see in this article are a bunch of low IQ losers. Anti Trump and Obama T shirts? Haha! That really shows the lack of intellect in this group of so called protesters. Usually these freak shows consist of young brainwashed college aged neo Marxist progressives…. where did they find these old losers from?”
“Looks like I touched a few nerves. Getting trolled by the usual suspects is a badge of honor around here. You knuckledraggers ought to get together and go bowling.”
“You are hands down the biggest moron commenting on this site.”
Oh yes, thank you. Now I agree with all of your points. That’s some good discourse there. You’ve definitely changed my mind.
Oh wait, no you didn’t. And in fact, speaking as someone who’s never been in a fight in his life, now I just want to punch you in the nose. And that illustrates the problem. It’s not about the politics, nor about the shutting down of discourse. It’s the tone. And when it comes to the tone, I believe the root of the problem is the nature of online comment forums: anonymity.
Back when the Spectrum was only a newspaper, it had a section called “The Vent,” where readers could send short comments – usually complaints but occasionally compliments – and as opposed to previous letters to the editor, submitters could remain anonymous.
People either loved The Vent or hated it.
I hated it.
Coming up with solutions is much harder than complaining. And complaining – or even outright insulting – is much easier when you’re anonymous.
When I taught language arts, I allowed students to disagree with each other and even with me. Hell, I encouraged it – it’s that whole discourse thing – but they had to look each other in the eyes when they did it. And when I made them practice that level of genuine communication – when you know someone’s name and you know they disagree with you but you are still trying to find common ground and convince them – I’d like to think I provided an environment where, indeed, minds were changed in some cases, and some convictions were strengthened in others.
But it was done with respect, both for others and for themselves and the faces they show to the world.
It’s one of the few redeeming aspects about the modern “face” of Facebook. People routinely say things I disagree with on Facebook, sometimes things that make me outright angry, but they sign their name to it. I can respect that.
I know there can be a level of anonymity on Facebook, and I also know there is some straight-up insulting that happens, but unfortunately, there’s just no changing some people, and it’s not nearly as bad as when you give someone the ability to hide behind a screen name with no picture or contact information.
I’ve used politics as a point of reference, but there are other areas where general civility is lacking in the comments section – much like my classroom discussions, these comments come up on articles dealing with women, race, people with disabilities and the LGBT community.
And given the results of Tuesday’s elections, I don’t necessarily believe we are yet on the cusp of the coming together of our country, which means the level of online discourse is probably not going to improve anytime soon.
So we have some choices.
At the end of “Of Mice and Men,” the main character has to kill more than just the friend he has been tasked with caring for; he has to kill his dream of something better.
As I said, I don’t want to shut down the comments section entirely. While I don’t think any minds are being changed, I think there is some decent, civil conversation happening. But if you can take your comments to Facebook just as easily – and more transparently – and if most of the rest of you tell me you don’t read the comments anyway or generally find them off-putting and that you wouldn’t comment even if you wanted to because of the anonymous trolls, that’s important to know.
If St. George News can spend less time moderating the comments section on behalf of the 10 readers who use it regularly, some of whom also regularly push the limits to see what we’ll allow and not allow, and spend more time producing news, that’s what we’ll do.
So now let’s hear from you. I’d prefer your comments here, but you can also email me. Or comment on the Facebook post of this article. I’ll check, I promise.
Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2018, all rights reserved.
Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2018, all rights reserved.