A couple of Civil Beat commenters last week raised the idea that the email prompt one receives on this website, notifying the commenter of a response to a post, encourages “knee-jerk,” contentious conversations online.

I agree that the prompt, and similar interface mechanisms on all sorts of social media sites, intends to generate a sense of urgency. That accelerator of pace probably leads to less-thoughtful and often less-civil discourse.

Yet I also want to push back on that not-my-fault idea, in the sense that everyone now is responsible and accountable for what they post, as if they are the publisher of an international news site (because, technically speaking, they are). Publishing on all levels has been disrupted by the power and potential of emerging communication technologies. If you publish it (and that includes recirculating it on your social media channel), you own it.

Donald Trump
Is everything that President-elect Donald Trump tweets news? Maybe, but a little perspective and analysis would be nice. DonkeyHotey via Flickr

As many people have argued, we are symbol-making and tool-using creatures fundamentally in control of our own destinies; technological determinism does not sufficiently account for the aegis of humanity on design, production and – maybe most importantly – adoption and use. In other words, ultimately, we choose our technologies and what we do with them. Facebook might help you do it, for example, but, ultimately, you did it.

While people without formal journalism training are learning (sometimes painfully) what that responsibility entails, professional journalists have struggled with the competitive aspects of the changes, too.

People in prominent agenda-setting roles in society are easily able to wave a shiny social-media object to attract attention, distracting the public from more substantive issues.

Technological convergence has led most newspapers, radio, television, web and mobile news organizations to compete directly with each other on essentially the same network and platform (the internet, broadly conceptualized), often with much fewer resources than they had before the increased competition.

Some independent and nonprofit media organizations still are driven by the primary goal of doing public good, such as Civil Beat, ProPublica and The Texas Tribune. But many other media sources have been hollowed out and transformed into shallow shills, trying to squeeze out whatever juice is left in the industry.

In those starkly for-profit systems, journalists often swirl in packs, as a form of survival, betraying their professional ideals and the independence afforded by the First Amendment, increasingly compelled by market forces to be first, foremost and also spreadable.

Personified by the president-elect, people in prominent agenda-setting roles in society are easily able to wave a shiny social-media object to attract attention, distracting the public from more substantive issues.

Last week, for example, the nation’s attention quickly turned from curious presidential Cabinet choices — that in previous decades would have embroiled the country in serious discourse for days or weeks — to blatant red herrings related to flag burning and “illegal” votes.

When President-elect Donald Trump — without providing any evidence — claimed 3 million votes from the November election should not have counted (which just happened to be about how many he would need to win the popular vote), most of the media not only took the bait but swallowed the entire bucket of nightcrawlers.

Civil Beat, for its part, reported in a three-sentence blurb on its home page (about noon on Nov. 28) the headline: “Trump claims popular vote.” Those who read no further easily could have misinterpreted that phrasing as Trump collected the most votes in the election (or at least that he made a valid claim he had).

Civil Beat's blurb aided and abetted Trump's strategy of distraction.
Civil Beat’s blurb aided and abetted Trump’s strategy of distraction. Screen shot


The next line of the blurb was “The president-elect who won the Electoral College said he would also win the popular vote if ‘illegal’ votes were deducted.” Still, no suggestion that this idea is highly suspicious.

The final line, “Clinton, who has 2 million more votes than Trump, joined the Wisconsin recount effort as some look to recount Pennsylvania and Michigan, too.” Without knowing the rest of the story, and without additional reference material, that line could read as if Trump is pushing the recount and Clinton is trying to dispute it. Aside from the hyperlinks, that is the extent of the information provided, at a glance.

The Wall Street Journal contributed another confusing account of the situation, with the headline, “Trump takes aim at millions of votes,” followed by a secondary headline that read: “As recount efforts are stepped up, president-elect responds with new claims of fraud.” The Journal postponed until the end of the second paragraph of the story this key clause: “without any corroboration for the allegation.”

Journalist Melissa Block of National Public Radio, meanwhile, photographed side-by-side headlines in the Washington Post and The New York Times. The Washington Post blared: “Trump: Millions voted illegally.” The New York Times went with: “Trump promotes a baseless claim on illegal voting.”

Some readers have criticized the Times for its word choices. But I see this potentially as a threshold moment in which journalists covering Trump finally reclaim and refocus the news agenda firmly on information that is warranted for public discourse, backed by vetted and documented facts, no longer gazing in awe at bizarre acts of partisanship, propaganda or wild speculation.

Before we spent too much time thinking about any of that, though, we were razzle-dazzled into an urgent flag-burning crisis (and I’m sure other pressing situations of immediate concern will emerge between the time I submit this column draft and when it is published).

Such immediacy, afforded by instantaneous communication technologies, makes everything seem important right now. When flattened like this by our media ecosystem, the whole world appears to be on fire.

But – just maybe – whatever it is can wait a few minutes, or even hours, while a claim is investigated. Then, thoughtful commenters can respond, and the replies to those comments could perpetuate a deeper conversation. When our public discourse is at stake, speed isn’t necessarily the most important factor to consider.

About the Author

  • Brett Oppegaard

    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 brett.oppegaard@gmail.com.

    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.