Anonymous Commentary ≠ Journalism

Oh, to say what you really think.

It’s a movie moment–to say eloquently and even cuttingly the very best line of your life to the person or people who just don’t get it. If only Aaron Sorkin and his laptop were somehow lodged in your brain for those times when you need it most.

But, as we all know, that’s just not the way the world works. Instead, when we’re insulted, we spew a semi-nonsensical response or worse, we just mumble to get out of the moment. Good thing there are now a ton of opportunities to write exactly what you think, thanks to the comforting anonymity of social networks and media sites.

Ahh….the freedom of logging onto message boards or Tweeting, FB-ing, or blogging your Very Important Opinions to the universe, without any real fear of retribution of being held accountable for your words. Even if you expose yourself through a profile picture, let’s face it–it’s a heck of a lot easier to be emboldened behind a keyboard instead of having an actual face-to-face critical conversation.

As I’ve said before, words matter.  This whole notion of “keepin’ it real” is–what is the word?  Oh yes, it is garbage.

Keepin’ it Real is often divorced from reality. It’s that “just sayin'” mentality that lets people get away unchallenged with rumors as facts.

Before anyone thinks for a second I am advocating censorship, please know I am a staunch supporter of the First Amendment. The power of speaking out in the cases of revolution like we recently saw in Egypt is vitally important. Those people risked their lives in their effort to speak the truth. In such cases, anonymity is necessary for protecting lives. I am all for holding the powerful accountable, for calling out those who seek to deceive, discriminate, and cause undue harm. I am not for the ridiculously vitriolic, hurtful comments that are said from the pulpit of anonymity.

I have been in countless meetings with community members and leaders who have expressed their outrage at the comments section of MLive.  These are good people who are working incredibly hard to make Flint and the entire community a better place for all. Even the most positive initiatives can receive callous remarks in the the MLive comments section. Do public/private entities and employees make mistakes? Absolutely–we all do.  That’s the part about being human, remember? But, by and large, these individuals work for entities that make our community stronger, better, competitive. Instead of living in a society where people feel they can own up to mistakes and have a reasonable discussion about what can be done better next time, what has been created is a public gallows where there are hangings by threads of mean-spirited comments. There is no room for reflection in this domain.

What distresses me more than downright nutty comments is the fact that leadership at the  Flint Journal realizes that many of the comments are just plain bunk.  Last fall, I was part of a group that addressed this issue with leadership at the Flint Journal. To their credit, they listened to our criticism which was at times heated and pointed. It was one of those famously difficult conversations. The good folks at the Journal stood by the comments, indicating that interaction was a good thing, and that they saw their message boards as a place for “community dialogue.”

Labeling something a community dialogue presumes there is a moderator, or at least a person monitoring the conversation enough to ensure that it follows basic guidelines of responsible debate. If anyone has read those message boards, you know that is clearly not happening. Innuendo, rumor, and slanderous comments abound. Facts, schmacts. From the comfort of their clever online handles, these anonymous message board bullies rule the roost, getting out their ill-informed views and gleefully talking tough to anyone who dares bring a rational thought into the mix.

To make matters worse, in an effort to fill a void with provocative content, the Flint Journal has taken to re-packaging those comments into “news” stories for MLive. With headlines such as “Readers say…,” the Journal uses the tactic of attribution to get away with effectively stirring the pot.

To PR professionals, the only recourse I can recommend is to not engage on those message boards. It is like throwing sharks raw meat–you know you’re going to get ripped to shreds, so it’s just best to stay out of the water. But also as a PR professional, I think it is vitally important to continue to advocate that our local media practice responsible journalism. We can’t just stand by and complain about the media. We must demand that they are allowed to do their jobs, to be the noble professionals they once were. Do real investigative journalism. Put commentary in context and create some way for there to be accountability with commentary. In the old days, when you submitted a letter to the editor, an actual human being would call your house to verify that you were you. Bring back some form of checking so that when opinion is out there, a person’s identity is, too.

Anyway, maybe we should all just quit our jobs as armchair editorialists. Instead of Keepin’ It Real, lets get real and do something, take action to make change. Just sayin’.

Jen Hogan