“I know the difference of opinion and debate, but I will not abide hatred.”
With those words, a Catholic priest in Dallas gave newspaper editors the principle that ought to guide them through a tense time in America. Newspaper editors exercise judgement many times every day. It’s time for them to exercise that judgment to silence some of the hateful debate.
Jacquielynn Floyd told the story of Father Joshua Whitfield of St. Rita’s church in Dallas. One Sunday, a man received Holy Communion from the priest and then said—with the host still in his mouth—“Father, you forgot to say, ‘Kill all the Muslims.’” The priest’s sermon the following Sunday was in the best tradition of fire and brimstone. He said his church was founded by a man who preached about love, and too much of our political discussion in America today is focused on who to blame and who to hate. And he wasn’t having it. Neither should editors. We are promulgating this practice.
In the late 1990s, my former newspaper in California was one of the first newspaper websites to allow readers to comment on news stories. What now is commonplace on the vanguard. We had the highest hopes that this comment section would become a forum of enlightened debate on local news stories we had published.
We were wrong. I was wrong. It is the worst mistake I ever made as an editor.
Soon the comments over each and every crime story turned toward illegal immigration. Even when no suspects had been named, our readers determined that the crime had been committed by someone who was in Mexico 24 hours ago.
The arguments grew worse and spread to other topics. Insults fired incessantly. Suggestions of violent retribution. Cabals of like-minded people ganging up on anyone who disagreed. We tried—and my successors did nobly try—to reign in the insanity. But instead, the fire spread. And soon it became commonplace to see a story with dozens or even hundreds of comments. Hundreds of newspapers and website spread the practice.
I called it “Talk Radio of the Print World,” because the anonymity seemed to engender more courage than a fifth of Jack Daniels. And so much of it was filled with hate.
In 15 years, the problem has only grown worse. And I think it’s time to end this. This runs against every First Amendment bone in my body. I believe most bad ideas fall apart under their own weight, but the engineering of the Internet has made it easier to distribute the load and spread the hate.
Editors always have balanced decisions based on the greater good of our readers and our communities. We’ve reached a dangerous point in our communities when it becomes very easy to blame one ethnic or religious group for the troubles. Our website forums are becoming town halls for hatred.
There are solutions.
Verify comments before posting them. That much-maligned website, Wikipedia, has grown credibility by establishing a rigorous verification policy. Authors who make “factual claims” must cite their source before the fact is added. We can do the same. There is nothing wrong with having your commentators go through a waiting period for verification. We are better than talk radio.
Change the location of the public debate from your website to the reporter’s Twitter feed. Many reporters already are doing this. They choose which comments to retweet and, in effect, give credibility to.
Set up guidelines and enforce them like a drill sergeant. Several websites have taken this approach and banned those who run the red lights. The only way to get unbanned is to make a donation to a non-profit organization.
We have a responsibility to our communities to moderate enlightened debate on issues. It’s irresponsible to allow those forums to be dominated by myopic followers. It discouraged reasonable people from joining the debate.
We have to enforce our responsibility as editors and help moderate the debate.
Tim Gallagher is president of The 20/20 Network, a public relations and strategic communications firm. He is a former Pulitzer Prize-winning editor and publisher at The Albuquerque Tribune and the Ventura County Star newspapers. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.