Do newspapers traffic in racism?

Yes.

A couple of weeks ago I wrote a blog post advocating that newspapers should close their comments sections.  In the days since then I have heard from many people agreeing with me, and no one has disagreed.  I have had a twitter conversation with a National Post reporter whose piece about the breaking of a copper on the steps of the Victoria Legislature was – as is typical – hijacked by racist comments.    In that Twitter conversation, Tristin Hooper, the reporter stated that there is nothing he can do to influence this conversation and that “freedom can be an ugly, ugly thing sometimes.”

Well no doubt.  But in pondering this situation more, I am left to conclude that newspapers are actually trafiicking in racism.  Take for example this really interesting Globe and Mail piece about the spiritual side of Idle No More. This is a good discussion where people actually learned something in the conversation.  And then you get comments like this:

“What a load of crap. With the chiefs, elders and anyone directly related to them on the take the two spiritual sides of ‘idle no more’ are 1) Hand over more cash,2 ) and dont even think for a second we want to work at an 8 to 4 job. Oh, and add the mantra of Accounting? Accounting? Thats a white mans distraction.
If you dig back far enough you will find the simple hunter-gatherer approach to understanding the cosmos. Toss in the guilt ridden white mentality and the stone age vision of the world becomes an all encompassing stewards of the land ‘religion’. The only way this all flies is that modern society buys into the idea and pays for it.
Settle directly with everyone covered by the Indian Act bypassing the chiefs and elders completely. Give them their home and the land it sits on fee simple, a wad of cash and that is the end of it. It would be way cheaper then continuing this on for ever!”

So.

The Globe and Mail has a polcy at the top of its comments page that reads:

Editor’s Note: Comments that appear on the site are not the opinion of The Globe and Mail, but only of the comment writer. Personal attacks, offensive language and unsubstantiated allegations are not allowed. For more information on our commenting policies, please see our Community Guidelines page, or read our full Terms and Conditions. If you see a typo or error on our site, report it to us. Please include a link to the story where you spotted the error.

The comment above contains two of these three violations and elsewhere in that same comment section Teresa Spence is referred to as “Thief Spence.”  The editor’s policy may be that these are technically violations, but they are allowed to stand.  To make matters worse, replies on the Globe and Mail website are collapsed in threads, making it impossible to address this information and have your objections seen.  Not much of a free market of ideas. A false comment gets more visibility than the reply that aims to correct it.  Want to create a set of misperceptions of First Nations? Just write all manner of comments.  No one will read the replies.

So what is going on here?  The Globe and Mail does not enforce its own polices, or at least does it completely arbitrarily.  An interesting read on the spiritual side of Idle No More gets poisoned by racism, personal attacks and unsubstantiated allegations, and we just keep looking.

The editorial policy says that the opinions in the comments are not the opinions of the paper.  But by leaving comments sections like this open to this kind of abuse the Globe and Mail is sharing an opinion with you.  It is stating that “it is the opinion of this paper that comments like the ones below are not in violation of our policy and contribute to the conversation.”

Furthermore, according to the Globe’s own terms and conditions, when you upload anything to the comments boards at the Globe and Mail you give the Globe and mail a license to use the material any way they want.  By leaving it on their site, they are using comments to drive traffic to their advertisers and therefore earn revenue.  Comments, and especially outrage, represents real cash money.  Racist speech, unsubstantiated allegations and personal attacks all drive comment threads that are hundreds of comments long.  More readers = more revenue.  Racism sells.

Furthermore, also from the Globe’s Terms and Conditions:

When participating in a Forum, never assume that people are who they say they are, know what they say they know, or are affiliated with whom they say they are affiliated. The Globe and/or its affiliates and licensors cannot be responsible for the content or accuracy of any information, and will not be responsible for any reliance or decisions made based on such information. When using a Forum, you may not post, transmit, link to, or otherwise distribute any information, materials or content that do not generally pertain to the designated topic or theme of the particular Forum. Use of a Forum for commercial purposes of any kind is strictly prohibited. Please note that The Globe reserves the right to refuse to post or to remove any information or materials, in whole or in part, that, in its sole discretion, are unacceptable, undesirable, or in violation of these Terms and Conditions.

This is no about restricting freedom of speech. This is not about stopping a conversation in society on First Nations issues.  Quite the opposite in fact.   Every single person who posts in a comments thread has the freedom to start their own blog and post anything they want.  What it is about is this clever dodge that papers use to hide behind the guise of freedom while trafficking for money in hate speech and libel.  And the sheer volume of it plus an insubstantial disclaimer protects them from legal action.

So is there hope for a conversation with editorial boards on the merits of comments sections?  Are their editors who agree with me?  Are their journalists out there who consider this worthy writing about?  Or are we just too tied to the money to turn off the tap?

Public conversation, and by extension, public policy suffers for this rhetoric.

PS…bonus link…the  Globe and Mail allows a personal attack to stand in an article about one man who is addressing racism on Craigslist. WTF?

PPS…The Globe and Mail has, since its inception, had this quote on its editorial page: “The subject who is truly loyal to the Chief Magistrate will neither advise nor submit to arbitrary measures.”  Going to war against arbitrary measures was the paper’s founding principle.  I wonder if people still talk about what that means around the editorial board?

3 comments.

  1. I have long believed that the solution to the plague of anonymous vitriol in online forums is to eliminate the anonymity. Back in the stone age, when I was a newspaper and magazine editor, we very, very seldom published a letter to the editor anonymously, and then only if the editor knew the name of the author and felt that there was a compelling reason to protect their identity.

    I don’t think we need to close the comments sections. We just need to make commenters take public ownership of their opinions.

  2. I don’t think it will help. Many people already post under their own names. It’s not anonymity that is the problem but separation. Talk radio is the same. You are speaking to a person just shouting into a box.

  3. I agree that it would not stop all abuse, but it still seems to me that the majority of racist, homophobic, and misogynistic comments are posted under pseudonyms.

    Talk radio isn’t quite the same either, as there is always a host and a producer to cut a nutcase off in mid-rant. It doesn’t happen as often as it should, and that of course supports your initial point that media are trafficking in these sorts of comments because they build readership / listenership / clicks.

    All things considered, I still think that requiring the identity of the poster, combined with more responsible editorial gatekeeping, would be a better way to go.

    However, neither of us is going to see our recommendations taken up anytime soon!

    Thanks for the thoughtful conversation.