Sunday, September 18, 2011

Don't risk losing the news

News can be provocative.  News can be controversial.  Eliminate the provocative and controversial and publications risk eliminating the news as well.  A publication that intentionally avoids potentially contentious news and viewpoints does a disservice to its readers by not informing or exposing them to issues that may require the reader's action, the reader's deliberation, or even the reader to form new opinions or change old ones.

This thought occurred to me after reading an online publication's editorial policy regarding this November's election.
"We believe that objective community journalism should not thrive on drama and comment wars.  We do not run politically divisive stories, nor do we mix news and opinion by allowing comments on the site. 
"[The editor] typically does not vote in local level elections and is committed to her role of remaining politically independent and doing fair coverage."
It is rare for publishers of traditional journalistic properties to deliberately inject drama or hyperbole into articles except that which naturally seeps-in from the writer's or editor's biases.  Most of the drama is introduced by readers commenting on stories, with the worst offenders posting anonymously.

Regardless whether replies are signed or unsigned, they are the opinions of your neighbors.  Whether informed or uninformed, these are the opinions of citizens that may cast votes for or against your candidate or issue.  Readers may choose whether to read comments or not.  Readers choose whether to post their own opinions or keep them to themselves.

Comments, like the articles themselves, belong to the person that wrote them.  A well-written, well-thought-out comment can be as informative as the article itself or provide additional clarity.  As important, a comment might provide a counter-point, keeping both the publication and author honest.

The greatest risk in allowing comments, especially uninformed or vicious comments (or worse, anonymous), is that other readers may not be able to distinguish between good comments and bad, or may form opinions based on rumor or poorly-reasoned arguments.  But if a reader is unable to discriminate between good and bad comments however would the publisher expect them to detect editorial bias or read between the lines?

As valuable and informative as an article may be, as valuable (or disappointing) may be the reactions of your neighbors to the same article.

Granted, not every comment is civil.  Not every comment is kind.  Heck, many comments are barely on-topic.  But comments do reflect, if imperfectly, our fellow citizens.  You may be either encouraged or discouraged by that.

Whichever you are, I encourage you to leave a comment--we're unafraid of controversy.

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