musings: the future of journalism, pt 4

Posted: 02/11/2010 in musings, the future of journalism
Tags: , ,

Here are some more of my musings on the future of journalism:

Online journalists face a difficult decision when it comes to the comment function on their news articles or their blogs. The people formerly known as our audience are begging for more interaction: they want and need to be involved in the journalistic process. Unfortunately, there are some among that group that do not promote discussion or further the intellectual debate, but rather choose to fight flame wars and maliciously attack persons. These people are only aided by the ability to hide their identities, through anonymity or pseudonymity.

No journalist will argue that comments are a facet that we are willing to part with. In fact, it has always been quite the contrary: we love intelligent feedback. It is one of the perks of this job to hear feedback from our audience and realize that in some way we are influencing the growth of knowledge and by doing so promoting the democracy we serve. Comments on the Internet are certainly different from the letters to the editor of yesterday; however, we cannot say that immediate feedback harms us in any way. Rather, immediate feedback makes us more responsive to our audience, which is exactly what journalists need to be in this digital era.

The question for journalists becomes this: how do we foster the type of community discussion that Tim McGuire hopes for without opening ourselves up to all types of vile comments or skanky spew that Internet trolls are ready and willing to dish out beyond the veil of Internet secrecy? One possible solution is in the very former audience that we hope to emcee the discussions for. We have all heard of the invisible hand of the market (a key tenet in Adam Smithian logic). This self-regulation could be a key component of maintaining a troll-free environment on journalistic websites. We need a function in the comments in which the people can vote to eliminate inappropriate posts. The system could be as simple as this: a button on each comment that other members of our former audience can click to vote a comment as inappropriate (in the support of free speech, the first click by a user could simply send the comment to the end of the list of comments where it will essentially no longer exists; a second or third click could erase the comment entirely). If in a marketplace of ideas the truth will survive, the same should be true for the comments on journalistic websites. We must trust the people to regulate themselves to help foster our intelligent discussions. Another possible solution comes in the further development of profanity detection and restriction. Blocking obscenities is not necessary for all journalists, but for the more professional it seems to be a good idea. The final possible solution comes with the development of our plugged-in society. Anonymity and pseudonymity will continue no matter what we do, as Gillmor states, but the furthering of social media will help to create a more transparent society online. If journalists take advantage of social media to propagate their works, the natural transparency of social networks will likely eliminate a majority of anonymous or pseudonymous comments and help to weed out the trolls who create them.

The answer to our problem will probably not come from one of these proposed solutions, but rather it will be a combination of all of them.

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