Breaking news: sifting through hateful comments is tiresome

By David Talley | Published Wednesday, August 17, 2016

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If you haven’t seen it, the Messenger’s Facebook policy generally runs alongside columns on this page. We tend to alternate it with information about submitting letters to the editor and tips on how to contact your state representatives.

Next time it runs, read it. It seems many folks out there could use a refresher.

David Talley

David Talley

It’s a comprehensive, but not necessarily flashy, statement on how this paper posts news to social media and how to conduct yourself on our Facebook page. I can see how it might get overlooked, which is OK. We try not to hit readers over the head with the same statement every week because most of the information should be common sense.

These are things like “we do not print or post stories until they have been verified to the best of our ability” and “we encourage those who comment online to keep their comments civil, to avoid profanity, name-calling and personal attacks” and “the nature of online commentary is that it is a free and open forum. Anyone can offer an opinion or observation, and the Messenger is not responsible for the accuracy or civility of what readers post online.”

The comments on a recent breaking news Facebook post have me thinking we should run the policy on page one of each issue and post daily reminders online.

While the Messenger’s Face2Facebook posts are created to solicit feedback and encourage people to read the whole story in the paper, breaking news posts don’t carry that same expectation.

The articles we post for car wrecks, house fires and other types of disasters are a public service, not a conversation piece.

The point of these posts is to give drivers a heads-up when traveling roads inside the county and to give answers to those who want to know the who, what, when, where, why and how these disasters happen.

In covering any event, we look for experts. In breaking news scenarios, these are generally police officers or firefighters. In serious traffic accidents outside most city limits, Texas Department of Public Safety state troopers conduct the investigation. They’re the figures we seek out at the scene as the source of timely, accurate information about what’s happened.

The information they give us is the only information we publish. Disasters do not merit our personal commentary, which is why no Messenger breaking news article or Facebook post includes it. I wish the same were true for reader comments.

Frankly, I wish we could disable comments on breaking news posts altogether. While the worst part of covering a disaster is waiting on scene while emergency crews rush to save a victim’s life, reading snide and backhanded comments from armchair experts hiding behind their keyboards is a not-so-distant second.

A recent breaking news post generated a heated online argument about judging others, driving under the influence and who was at blame for all of the destruction. Angry words were thrown around, and many comments were blocked thanks to our handy profanity filter. People who will never actually meet came away from the exchange with nothing gained, but they lost their dignity and sensibility.

While there were many sides to several distinct arguments taking place, no one was actually right. Many lives have been forever changed by a tragedy, but you’re arguing with strangers on the internet. You’ve all lost. Comments like this degrade the value of the attached story and generally serve to agitate an already traumatic situation.

We don’t need someone to “tell it like it is.” That’s already been done by the expert at the scene.

A commenter on one of our breaking news posts felt confident enough to post that, surely the Messenger “[likes] this kinda back and forth arguing for some reason.”

We do not. No one does. We in the newsroom do, however, read everything. You’ve posted it publicly; everyone can read it. And anyone with a soul lets out a collective groan at the sight of 71 replies to an inflammatory comment.

Sometimes, volatile comments go unnoticed because no one takes the bait. I wish this would happen more often. You may be sure someone else is wrong, but consider leaving them to wallow in their own ignorance.

Facebook comment wars only feed a raging blaze. I’ve covered enough house fires to know you don’t put out a fire by giving it more fuel.

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