« We need more Chief Story Tellers | Main | The Elephant in the Online Ad Room »

01/12/2011 Speech Matters

I don’t know about you but the Arizona shooting scares the hell out of me. If people think that the way they talk and act doesn’t affect anyone or anything, then they need to have their collective heads examined. Speech matters. That’s why it’s so important to our country.

Right after the Arizona shootings a comment appeared in our state’s largest and most important newspaper, the Burlington Free Press. The comment was in response to an article in the paper about an upcoming Burlington city council meeting discussing the contentious municipal broadband company Burlington Telecom.

The commenter suggested that someone bring his “friends Smith and Wesson” to the meeting. The Free Press alerted the police and removed the comment. The police showed up at the meeting just in case.

Actually, these types of remarks aren’t surprising on the Free Press’ comment section. I should know, because the comments on various Op-Eds I’ve penned that ended up online are, well, mostly scary and bizarre. I don’t know why the Free Press comment section brings out the worst in some Vermonters. I usually tell people (jokingly) that it’s one of the most dangerous places in our state, the darkest alley in Burlington.

Which raises the question: Should the Burlington Free Press remove its comments feature? Recently they supposedly upgraded their system, but it doesn’t seem to have improved the debate there.

The idea that people can comment on articles and interact with each other is a good idea. It’s just not that easy or smart in practice. Monitoring everything takes time, and with all the cutbacks at newspapers, there aren’t a lot of people left to do this.

The biggest challenges the Free Press and others face with these types of comment sections are lack of involvement and transparency. One of the reasons things spiral out of control so quickly is that the people who are responsible for the news, journalists and editors, don’t participate at all once the article goes to press and online. The comment section is like a bunch of crumbs thrown to a starving readership. And readers respond with: We want more!! We’re going to fight over the biggest crumbs too!

In blog and news sites where authors participate things usually don’t get out of control so much. They get out of control at times, for sure, but the level usually isn’t as vile as the worst examples are. Here’s one piece of advice for newspapers: Participate! You want your readers to show up; well we want you to show up too.

The other piece that’s lacking is transparency. It’s easy to be obnoxious and even threatening when you hide behind a veil of anonymity. Newspapers should do everything they can to call out people who are out of line, not by turning them off, but by outing them. If someone makes the comment about Smith and Wesson, I want to know who. The papers should publish names, e-mail addresses and real addresses.

I think this would do a lot to turn down the temperature. It would ensure that we hold people accountable for their words. People shouldn’t expect privacy in this public setting.

We want discussion and interaction. News organizations like the Burlington Free Press are invaluable to our communities. Let’s use some common sense and act like people to make this work in a sane and productive way.



TrackBack URL for this entry:

Listed below are links to weblogs that reference Speech Matters:


My Web Sites