Saturday, January 5, 2008

Washington Post Reader Comments

The Immigrant as punching bag

On occasion a colleague or a DREAMER I know will mention to me that they read the comments to newspaper articles on immigration and were surprised at the venom emanating from these comments. What is said is generally so hurtful, many DREAMERS avoid reading the commentary (as do I).

Its a nasty world out there - a while back I posted a commentary on a blog about the Mexican Presidential election of 2006. I got blasted for what I said (was just asking a question about where I could find the most reliable information). My daughter who is much more informed about blogs and the net told me that people are generally rude and insulting when they make comments on-line- it comes with the territory.

The author of the article below provokes a number of questions. How do DREAMERS react when they see abusive language in commentaries about immigration? Does it do any good to respond?

For one, the comments have to leave some hurt feelings. I saw the reaction in the DREAMER's faces last spring when we (the students and I) attended a Texas legislative committee hearing - some of our own supposedly wise, respectful, and well-informed Texas legislators spoke in such a hateful manner about DREAM act students that I still cringe when I recall the event.

Howell, the WP "ombudsman" has a good point when she notes that enraged commentators are generally not a valid representation of the newspapers readership. While they could be only 1% of the papers readers - they scream so loudly they make it seem like they are representing almost everybody.

For those that want to anonymously let loose on a commentary about immigration, if at all possible, remember that you are talking about real people - would you speak to your neighbor; your teacher; your boss; or your mother that way?

'Web site comments can be more than ugly and are often aimed at private citizens quoted in stories. National reporter Darryl Fears would stop them. "Comments attached to stories about race, ethnicity and related issues such as immigration often reek of racism, intolerance and ignorance. To ignore them, in my opinion, is to endorse them."' - Deborah Howell

Facing Up to the Feedback
By Deborah Howell
Washington Post
Sunday, January 6, 2008; B06

For as long as newspapers have existed, readers have complained that they focus on the negative and critical. Journalists tend to blow that off: That's what's news. But when readers are negative toward The Post or its journalists, they often are met with what former Post executive editor Ben Bradlee called "the defensive crouch."

My new year's resolution for journalists is: Suck it up and forget the abuse. My resolution for angry readers is: Don't assume malevolence on the part of the reporter or the paper when mistakes are made. Most transgressions are caused by human error or ignorance.

If The Post makes a mistake, or if readers think The Post is leading them astray, they can have at it. But if readers, in e-mail and online comments, say we're all idiots and ought to resign in disgrace, what do we do with that?

Having been attacked frequently and believing deeply both in free speech and civil discourse, I didn't come easily to this conclusion: Journalists need to stop whining. The only thing we have to lose is our self-importance. We are just another part of the great public marketplace that is subject to this treatment. If the comments are simply abusive rather than critical, ignore them.

Reader Beverly Larson of Bristol, R.I., raised the issue recently: "Would you please explain The Post's policy on reader feedback on articles? Do reporters and editors look at the e-mail exchanges? Or is The Post merely providing a forum for expression and dialogue among readers? Or to foster a sense of connection to the paper?"

Anonymous online comments don't foster a sense of connection to the paper. But, along with blogs and chats, they lure visitors and build loyalty to, said Jim Brady, the Web site's executive editor. My problem is that quicker removal of offensive postings is badly needed. Brady said there will be more monitoring at nights and on weekends. Good. The paper is a far different news medium and doesn't print anonymous attacks. Well, except on Sports section blog excerpts.

Some reporters and editors read the online comments. Others flatly avoid them as poisonous. They're daunting and don't raise morale. But free speech doesn't have to be decorous.

The venom rolls off the backs of some journalists; others hate it. Prince George's County reporter Ruben Castaneda tries to respond to e-mails "calmly and professionally" even "if they're abusive. Now and then responding sparks a thoughtful dialogue."

Web site comments can be more than ugly and are often aimed at private citizens quoted in stories. National reporter Darryl Fears would stop them. "Comments attached to stories about race, ethnicity and related issues such as immigration often reek of racism, intolerance and ignorance. To ignore them, in my opinion, is to endorse them."

Metro columnist Marc Fisher disagrees. "I don't mind abusive or insulting comments in the least. Like anyone else, I find the most extreme abuse unsettling, but short of that, it's all part of the exchange with readers. We have our say in our articles and comments; if we're going to let readers have their say, we ought to let those boards be a true reflection of all the wrath, foolishness, wisdom and range of opinions that people bring to our work."

Fisher makes a good point with this reminder: "I have never understood why some colleagues treat the online comments as if they were representative of the overall reader reaction to a story. Online comments are like the phone calls on talk radio. They tend to be the folks with the most polarized and virulent of viewpoints."

Style reporter Paul Farhi said, "I'm not sure why anyone would be offended by negative comments. It's part of the territory. We're not here to be loved and praised. Negative commentary is part of the conversation, too. News flash: There are a lot of ignorant, angry people in the world. And so what? Let those people blow off steam, too."

National congressional reporter Jonathan Weisman "never" reads comments posted on the Post Web site, but he almost always reads e-mails, as do most reporters I know. "If they're polite, I want to respond when I can. Sometimes I will respond to very abusive ones with a very polite reply that says, 'I would like to know how your mother would respond to this.' " Often, reporters say, angry e-mailers are surprised by a response and are apologetic.

Weisman admits he committed a blunder when he replied with an obscenity to a nasty e-mail. Of course, "it showed up on every Web site, and I was taken to task by the executive editor. I was wrong; it was a foolish mistake."

Business columnist Steve Pearlstein said that when he makes a mistake, "it is invariably the e-mailers who are the first to point it out. I particularly look forward to the short, biting, irreverent e-mails that are negative or critical. They not only keep me on my toes but remind me to keep those qualities in my own columnizing."

Post subscribers tend to be the most thoughtful responders. About 700 attended a recent Post Points gathering at the paper to meet editors, reporters and columnists, and it was good to be reminded that not all readers are angry.

In fact, readers do compliment stories, and, bless them, they offer tips that turn into good articles. Thousands praised The Post for the Walter Reed series. Readers almost always respond with compassion to stories of people down on their luck; they offer money, rent, groceries. And journalists shouldn't forget that.

Deborah Howell can be reached at 202-334-7582 or

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