Dispatches from a Reporter's Notebook

Bringing Civility Back

Posted April 10, 2007 6:31 p.m. EDT
Updated April 10, 2007 7:03 p.m. EDT

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.

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.