Dispatches from a Reporter's Notebook

Bringing Civility Back

Posted April 10, 2007

Can you imagine going up to co-workers and calling them expletives to their faces?  Not if you want to keep your job.  Take the example out of the office into your neighborhood, your church, your social circle. Would you ever call someone a loser, an idiot, or something I can't and won't print here? 

For most people the answer is a resounding "No!"  This is because even if people in our lives upset us, (clearly this happens to everyone on a daily basis) we have rules of conduct that we live by in a civil society.  We all run afoul of these rules from time to time, but in general, we all know what the rules are and try to live by them.  In television news, we bend over backwards to make sure our words on the air and the words of those we interview do not offend.  This is a daily conversation we have as we edit every story. 

There is one place these rules don't seem to apply: On the Internet, and I'm not really sure why.   I am frankly embarrassed by the way blogs and comments on Web sites have taken our public discourse into a dark world laced with obscenity, profanity and threats.  For my own sanity, and to keep some level of journalistic integrity intact in this increasingly gray area, I don't read or respond to e-mails or comments that contain any of the above.   I also make it a practice not to visit Web sites that don't police their comments.  I'm not interested in having my reading of something clouded by ugly words that have little to do with the content of the original article and have everything to do with attacking another poster.  The bottom line: If you can't get your point across without the aforementioned, well then your point doesn't deserve much attention in my opinion.

In the old days people had to write snail mail or make a phone call when something disturbed them.  This took effort and courage because it required people to make their identity known when they voiced their concerns.  Today, with relative anonymity, people can criticize and harass others on the Internet without impunity.  What if we started posting your picture, your home address and your phone number along with these posts, would you use the same approach?  I don't think so.  Would you say these things with your mother in the room, your grandmother, your child?  I sure hope not.

This debate entered the national arena recently after Tim O'Reilly, a conference promoter and book publisher, created a set of suggestions to help webmasters bring the tone of their posts up to a higher plane.  His campaign was in response to death threats a colleague of his received on the Internet.  The threats that he refers to as "cyberbullying" caused the female author to cancel speaking engagments because she was concerned about her safety.  Ultimately, O'Reilly proposes setting rules about what you will and will not post so that people who visit your site know what your standards are upfront. 

As expected, O'Reilly's recommendations have been met with cries of censorship and people waving the First Amendment flag.   As a young journalist who hadn't even dreamed about the possibilities of the Web when I got into the business in 1989, I might have initially jumped on that bandwagon, but not anymore.  I think it's time to say we've had enough.  O'Reilly was quoted by The New York Times this week as saying:  "Free speech is enhanced by civility."  This journalist agrees.


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  • tothedj Apr 14, 2007

    I'm glad there is someone in television news who
    is telling the truth about the state of our society, with the choices we have today, we have
    to be careful what we see and hear, especially
    on the internet, because there are many sites
    that can trap you, so it's wise to monitor what
    your family is viewing and hearing.

  • stirwin Apr 12, 2007

    This has been a big topic in our family. Most websites, especially sports related, are absolutely filled with foul language and outrageous insults; some even threatening for a child's game played by 'professionals'. It's senseless to log on many sites for all of the malevolence and bad vibes. It wears on you emotionally. International websites discussing war or religion are truly threatening. It's not just us...it's the entire world that has gone crazy. Imus, the proverbial straw, is an arrogant shock jock, whose intimidating ways have held Wash DC personalities hostage for years, finally got his deserved comeuppance. By comparison, his words are mild compared to the venomous invectives found on websites discussing peace initiatives, of all things. Maybe we get negatively assaulted so much that we become numb and desensitized to degrading language and behavior. As a civilized society, each one of us needs to reject the notion that bad behavior is a right. Good work Amanda.

  • fireman1963 Apr 12, 2007

    laurasodo - you can protect your kids from MTV, VH-1 and all of the other extremely offensive television stations out there. It's called parental control and involvement.

    I have a 13 year old and an 11 year old. And we have cable through Time-Warner. We have the parentla controls set and have blocked all of the channels that we find offensive.

    As far as graffitti goes, you are absolutely right. You can't protect them from that. But you can explain to them what is wrong with it and why it is offensive.

    The single, most important thing that a parent can do to protect their children is to spend time wth them and direct them - steer them in the right direction. May I suggest a book that you and your children can read called "Hook Line and Sinker" It was written by a Youth Pastor and contains many good points about raising children.

  • LoneWolf72 Apr 12, 2007

    I agree Amanda! Internet blogs and comments sections are places where people can spew mean spirited words with no accountibility. It's easy to 'talk trash' to a strange name on the computer screen, it's another thing to have to say it face to face and actually expand upon and explain your argument with intellegence and reason and facts rather than posting venom from afar....it's like a kid throwing rocks from an over pass and running away...it's cowardly and childish.

  • curiousgeorgia Apr 11, 2007

    I sure agree with you, Amanda!

    With freedom comes responsibility, a notion that is seldom if ever mentioned.

    You sure are brave to be a journalist, and a good one!

  • BubbaDuke Apr 11, 2007

    Freedom of speech? We only have the right to do the right thing. I can't protect my children from MTV, VH1, My Space, Surreal Life, South Park, or grafitti on overpasses; but I can control what I say and how I say it.

    At the same time, I think the Imus thing is blown way out of proportion. People only hear two or three words and miss out on the apology and the contrite heart.

    The Internet has made it possible for millions of people to say what's on their minds, and for the most part -it's nothing of consequence. The same could be said of the professional who gets paid to report or to speak on behalf of others - much ado about nothing.

  • pirate lady Apr 11, 2007

    Thank you Amanda. I too was excited when WRAL added the comment section, but have grown very weary of the same people spewing their hate and thinking everyone else is an idiot because others don't agree with them. I seldom comment and have decided to keep my opinions to myself because no matter what you say someone out there will attack you.

  • Been there once Apr 11, 2007


  • FloydRTurbo Apr 11, 2007

    I own a website and have over 1,000 commentaries on that site. I do NOT have a message board or reader comment section. Any reader replies come to me as e-mails. .... I've seen it all, read it all, been threatened, cursed etc etc.

    I have my own set of standards of what is acceptable. I would describe my civility level as "old school".

    The "issue" always comes back to "WHO" will be the national censor? If it is not "me" then I question the expertise of who is so empowered. WHO can evaluate the two primary socio-cultural-political ideologies and fairly judge them. Who is our "Soloman"?

    The Internet is a lawless frontier with no rules and no boundaries. It is not for the timid or thin-skinned.
    Liberals scream to have Rush Limbaugh shutdown but gleefully applaud Rosie O'Donnell, Bill Mahr, Jon Stewart and their set of insult-pervayors. ..... One man's terrorist is another man's Freedom Fighter.

  • Myword Apr 11, 2007

    I wish it was just on the Internet. I hate being in a store with my kids and hearing some person in a group--or on their cell phone--cussing away at a loud volume that makes it impossible not to hear. Also my oldest son constantly complains that he is the only kid his age who does not cuss at school...we have some strict rules about that.
    So...I fear the Great Rudeness is spreading.




About this Blog:

WRAL's Amanda Lamb offers a behind-the-scenes look at what TV news reporters do, the people they meet and how their jobs affect them.