Sunday, March 8, 2009

Democracy, or stupidity?

I’ve got a conundrum for you to work through with me.

The Web has the ability, journalistically, to unleash the “great beast” as one of my students eloquently puts it. Open a news article to comments and see what you get.

What you get, among a few cogent posts, is virulent racism in its most primitive form, enough misogyny to make Dr. Dre cringe (since he has a young daughter to go with his sons), an almost complete misunderstanding of the nature of democracy, fear, hatred, conspiracy theories crazy enough to make The Matrix seem like a fairy tale, complete misunderstanding of the difference between:
 Their and there and they’re
 Your and you’re
 Its and it’s
and some pretty funny shit once in a while.

Evidence: Go to the Kansas City Star on-line and follow the comments on any crime story or any story about either Missouri or Kansas sports.

Is this good for journalism?

Professional journalists are held to some pretty solid standards. You and I can debate the number of times they achieve those standards, but at least the standards push them toward a certain kind of content. It’s like the difference between truth and truthfulness. You can debate the nature of truth until the cows come home but you can’t debate whether you intended to be truthful. Good journalists intend to be fair, objective, careful. Posters, keyboard jockeys, often intend only to vent their sometimes twisted spleens.

Is this citizen journalism?

On the other hand, if you believe, as Socrates did, that all knowledge is good, then knowing what these folks think (if that’s the right word) must be good for us. This is true freedom of speech, isn’t it? Participatory democracy of the most complete kind? A genuine marketplace of ideas?

I don’t know the answer. Do you? Let me know…



  1. What you have brought up is the great electronic barometer of human intelligence of our lifetime. You really get your finger on the pulse of what people think, right? It's a mystery to me.

    I did count 3 "that's" :)

  2. The issue here, in my opinion, is time, as in the amount of time between when a person reads something and when they're able to comment. In the good ol' days, a person could read a newspaper article and if they wanted to comment, they could mail in a letter to the editor. The person would have to take the time to sit down at a typewriter or with a pen and paper, write the letter, stick it in an envelope, put a stamp on it and drop it in the mail. It's just a few minutes' worth of time, but oh, what a difference that few minutes makes (the difference can be seen in sheer volume; newspapers get a handful of letters to the editor, depending on the size of the paper, but online articles can receive thousands of comments in just a few hours).
    Is it good for journalism? I'm torn. As a journalist, I get annoyed with hit-and-run commenters, but I appreciate getting comments at all. But outside the realm of journalism, I like reading comments; I can quickly dismiss the garbage and spam, and oftentimes the comments can be just as entertaining as the original article (not in this case, of course).
    --Matt Kelsey

  3. The comment boxes are a popular place to condemn journalists, too. Usually the more eloquently the piece is written, the nastier the comments tend to be. The Kansas City Star's Charles Gusewelle can write a reflective piece about a lesson learned from nature at his cabin in the Ozarks, and that piece is typically followed by some of the most inflammatory remarks you'll ever read online. For those of you familiar with his writing, it's almost comical. Beyond aquiring more web traffic through link-building, search engine optimization and so on, I'm not sure what the real value is aside from allowing certain factions of the community to show their stupidity. I'd say the occasions where a useful or insightful dialogue is established is pretty rare on the mainstream sites.

    Kevin Kuzma