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Civil Beat recently changed commenting systems, dumping the Facebook plugin and turning to a comments-focused startup also labeled Civil (but with no relation to Civil Beat or The Civil Beat Law Center for the Public Interest).
This move was motivated by incessant issues arising from inappropriate commenters — people who spammed unrelated stories with their marketing pitches, drove discussions drastically off topic and viciously attacked those with the courage to speak about anything, usually directing their vitriol not at ideas but toward the commenter’s delivery style or personal attributes.
Facebook comments had solved some of the earlier problems Civil Beat had with reader participation, particularly those created by anonymity. Yet it also provided loopholes for others to emerge, such as concerns, especially from female commenters, that they were being cyber-stalked by shady people through the comment-based connections to their personal Facebook accounts.
This column will address another particularly complicated comment issue, based on a single case, and next week, I’ll respond to various other perspectives readers have raised about this commenting shift, and the comments section in general.
The dark side of reader comments is not a new problem or an easy one to solve. Online reader comments have been a disruptive force in the mass media since the advent of web publishing.
While news companies love the idea of two-way conversations with their audiences (building connectedness) and prompting vigorous community discussions (creating even more content), the comments in reality rarely function in such ideal, positive and generative ways. In response, several organizations (including CNN, Reuters and the Chicago Sun-Times) have either given up on them entirely or diverted the commentary directly into social media channels.
Nearly unavoidable troll culture in these sections tends to shut down many discussions and scare people away. Meanwhile, those with special interests can hide behind pseudonyms or obscure their backgrounds and conflicts of interests.
Shortly after this column debuted, David Pellegrin, chairman of Honolulu Publishing Co., wrote me an email wondering what I thought about an exchange in the comments section between Civil Beat Editor Patti Epler and a “freelance blogger” named Joan Conrow.
Conrow, who works for the Cornell Alliance for Science, to counter anti-GMO news, acknowledges significant bias in her work when she writes lines such as “We’re on the right path,” in relation to GMO development, as part of what she described in that same piece as “our global communications and outreach work.” By using terms such as “we” and “our,” she indicates she has taken a side on these issues.
Conrow, who also writes a blog called Kauai Eclectic, had been a regular contributor to Civil Beat comments (and even had been an early freelance contributor to Civil Beat). In those comments, though, she often argued the pro-GMO perspective without explicitly mentioning her occupation as a GMO sympathist.
The citizen journalism generated in the comments section should adhere to at least the basic principles of the field.
So Epler called her out on this veiled approach, an exchange that caught Pellegrin’s attention, with the suggestion, “I do think you should be more transparent because traditional journalists don’t accept pay or assignment from special interest groups.”
To which, as Pellegrin also documented, Conrow retorted: “As for my contractual work with the Cornell Alliance for Science, it is for very specific assignments and has nothing to do with either my blog, or my comments on your site. Should I also be disclosing that I’ve gotten assignments from the Sierra Club?”
Pellegrin noted that this exchange raised significant and complex issues about reader comments, including: disclosure (what should be disclosed by commenters?); occupational class (should a freelancer, likely earning spotty and temporary pay, be treated differently than a devoted and full-time writer?); and political work (when journalists dip into politics, do they lose their journalistic credentials?).
To the last question first, journalists simply cannot regain the appearance of independence in any particular field after acting politically in that field. Without that independence, they cannot be considered credible journalists in that area.
Case in point: Nestor Garcia’s recent return to KHON. Garcia was a journalist turned disgraced Honolulu City Council member. Once he left journalism and acted politically (especially in such scandalous ways), he lost his journalism credibility in every arena that he touched as a politician. While he could, I suppose, return to journalism as a movie critic or sportswriter or focus on some other discourse realm without political taint, he should be left out of the journalism about city politics and everywhere else he mingled as a politician.
KHON has ignored this clear and fundamental journalism tenet (act independently), and that station’s reputation and brand is the worse for it (yes, KHON really hired Garcia to set the news agenda for the station and to mentor young journalists!).
Conrow also has lost her journalistic independence (and credibility) to report fairly about GMO issues, because of the tone of her work on these issues. That is clear, but are her comments on Civil Beat considered journalism?
I think so, because comments are a primary form of citizen journalism, and citizen journalism happens regardless of occupational class. In other words, you do not have to be employed as a journalist to practice journalism, and when you comment on stories you are embodying the ideology of a journalist.
The citizen journalism generated in the comments section should adhere to at least the basic principles of the field, which Conrow did not (at least in the comment Pellegrin flagged). By not transparently disclosing her allegiances with GMO enthusiasts, Conrow gives the appearance of leaving out a really important aspect of her public and political persona (for unknown reasons), which taints her comments as conflicted and unreliable on this subject.
She could have changed that dynamic simply by disclosing in the comment her background bias, acknowledging how it shapes her perspectives and warning readers about the constraints of her filters. Does that mean she should disclose this information every time she comments on GMOs? Yes; despite the drag of redundancy to her regular readers, that would be the only ethical approach to commenting on this subject.
An important side note on this topic: At some point after I originally read Conrow’s comments, on the article Pellegrin flagged and others, and Civil Beat changed commenting systems, all of Conrow’s comments disappeared from the Civil Beat site, including the one mentioned. I contacted Civil Beat’s editor, Epler, and asked her if the comments were lost in the technology exchange, or if Civil Beat deleted them, or if she had any knowledge about what happened to them.
She said that she had no idea what happened to those comments and that Civil Beat had nothing to do with their disappearance. In the old Facebook system, she noted, readers had complete control of their comments, including the ability to remove them.
All people who participate in journalistic contexts should work in the open and disclose all significant conflicts of interest.
I also corresponded in about a 20-email exchange with Conrow. She argued that Civil Beat was responsible for the comments disappearing (and suggested Epler must have been involved). She also, though, repeatedly declined to provide evidence of that culpability (for example, I asked her numerous times to provide a screenshot of the comment on her Facebook feed, since she would have complete control of that, not Civil Beat, and if it was still there, would establish that she had not deleted it herself).
Conrow said the tension with Civil Beat was based on her questioning of the conflicts she thinks the organization has related to the community involvement of Pierre Omidyar, a founder and the publisher of the news organization. Conrow wrote in her emails that she no longer was “working as a traditional journalist, whatever that was, and in any case, none of the freelance assignments I took had anything to do with my personal blog or comments.” She said her comments were routinely deleted after she wrote about Civil Beat on her blog in mid-March, until she finally quit commenting altogether in mid-April.
Again, Epler said Civil Beat did not remove any of Conrow’s comments, and Conrow declined to elaborate on her relationship with the Cornell Alliance for Science or provide specific evidence that she tried to maintain those comments on Civil Beat (although she did forward a mid-April email to Epler asking the editor why her comments were being deleted). Eventually reaching a stalemate, Conrow repeatedly said she did not “trust” me to cover this issue fairly, so we are left with the Conrow-said/Civil Beat-said version of the story.
In such cases, I think citizen journalists too often argue on the side of “freedom” to produce “journalism” without acknowledging the inherent responsibilities of producing that journalism, in whatever form, including reader comments. While I could not be a more ardent supporter of the First Amendment, and our rights to freedom of expression and free presses, I also think practicing journalism in any form deserves attention and commitment to its standards and communal protocols.
In other words, if any person wants to express themselves in any media form, they have the right to do that. But if they are going to participate in journalistic discourse, they have basic ethical obligations, and one of those obligations is to disclose all significant conflicts of interest. In Conrow’s case, her work with the Cornell Alliance for Science conflicts her in matters related to GMOs. While she could write movie reviews or about sports, without mentioning this, when she comments directly on stories about GMOs, she ethically is responsible to disclose that conflict.
The SPJ Code of Ethics and most laws related to journalism do not distinguish between classes or types of journalists, full-time pros, freelancers, unpaid bloggers, etc. Therefore, freelancers and commenters are just as responsible for their contributions as anyone else.
In that regard, all people who participate in journalistic contexts, should work in the open and disclose all significant conflicts of interest. When is it a significant conflict of interest? That is more of a gray area, of course, but, a rule of thumb is that if you think one of your fellow readers might significantly understand, appreciate or contextualize your comments better from such disclosure, then it should be stated as the frame through which you see the issue. When in doubt, get it out in the open, where your comments can be construed as fairly presented and without anything to hide.
Brett Oppegaard has a doctorate degree in technical communication and rhetoric. He studies journalism and media forms as an associate professor at the University of Hawaii Manoa, in the School of Communications. He also has worked for many years in the journalism industry. Comment below or email Brett at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Reader Rep is a media criticism and commentary column that is independent from Civil Beat’s editorial staff and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of Civil Beat.