Watch List: No Comment.

Bringing the news and news makers together is at the heart of what we do, to keep media responsive and responsible to the public it serves

It’s springtime 2018 on Long Island, where the smell of fertilizer is overwhelming and the filing of lawsuits against either county is all the rage. (Congratulations, BTW, to Marty Tankleff. Well deserved and long overdue.)

With spring in their step, inquisitive readers of The Watch List have questioned, with varying degrees of sensitivity, why we haven’t taken Newsday to task for suspending reader comments on newsday.com. Why are you sitting idly by, while First Amendment rights have been violated? What happened to the rights of the public? Have you grown soft?

To clear up the situation, let’s begin here: People, relax.

If you’ve read the comments — the work of individuals comprising the public, not the news media — you would note that every thoughtful and insightful opinion regarding a particular news story was outweighed by the sheer volume of irresponsible comments, often bordering on hate and sometimes crossing the line. There was the work of thinly-veiled political operatives, who would weigh in to stir the pot of whatever they were cooking up, along with the garden variety of malcontents and purveyors of misinformation. The spammy, you-can-make-a-fortune-working-at-home comments were often the highlight of a particular thread or, at the very least, the most helpful.

To put it another way: The public has to shoulder responsibility for maintaining an acceptable standard of behavior in the public domain, just as the media does. Look on any social media platform and you’ll see Jane Doe and John Q. Public issuing the type of public statements no legitimate news outlet would, yet these same people will complain, usually within the same breath, that today’s media is the reason the world has gone to h-e-double-hockey-sticks-in-a-handbasket and is quite probably also the cause of holes in the ozone.

The real culprit, as we see it, is anonymity.

People commenting on a story should have their real names appearing next to their comments, the same way a news story carries the reporter’s byline. (In this age we’re living in, increased transparency in a newsroom is evermore necessary, and noting who the editors are should also now become the norm.)
Until Newsday and every other news outlet figures out how to ensure reader comments are signed off by real people with real names, the public should remember they are still free to submit letters — which, by the way, require full name, address and phone for verification purposes.
Let’s also take this opportunity to address what your fourth-grade teacher never told you about freedom of speech in this country: The First Amendment does not absolve you from being responsible for what you say.
– Jaci Clement, jaci@fairmediacouncil.org
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