Archived Story

Alcorn: Read what’s written, not others’ opinions

Published 10:52am Monday, May 13, 2013

A great number of readers of the Internet are more influenced — and negatively — by uncivil “reader comments” posts that emotionally attack reports of scholarly, scientific research than they are by the positive reports themselves, which are based on documented facts. Although this situation has been demonstrated by a recent experiment at the University of Wisconsin, I have recognized this by reading, as I occasionally bother to do, the reader comments on Herald opinion pieces on its website.

Dominique Brossard and Dietram A. Scheufele teach graduate students being trained as scientists how to communicate their findings to the general public as well as their professional colleagues so as to disseminate the data quickly, widely, and (of utmost importance) accurately. The wonderfully effective Internet is an obvious choice, but these communication researchers have been shocked by what is happening by unfavorable reactions.

They sought to test their informal observations of reader reaction by an empirical experiment of what they came to term “the nasty effect.”

“We asked 1,183 participants to carefully read a news post on a fictitious blog, explaining the potential risks and benefits of a new technology product called nanosilver.” Having read the report, they asked participants to read comments on the post, supposedly by other readers, and then to respond to the contents of the article itself.

The comments they were fed included personal opinions some of which agreed with the risks and others that agreed with the benefits. Half the experimental group was given reader comments that were civil and reasoned. The other half saw rude reactions. This latter included such uncivil remarks as “If you don’t see the benefits, you’re a idiot” and “You’re stupid if you don’t see the risks.”

The results were “disturbing.” “Uncivil comments not only polarized readers, but they often changed a participant’s interpretation of the news story itself.” On the other hand, the group given civil reader comments were largely unaffected by the comments of others. They had reached their conclusions and tolerated disagreements.

The researchers advise: “Our emerging online media landscape has created a new public forum without the traditional social norms and self-regulation that typically govern our in-person exchanges — and that medium, increasingly, shapes both what we know and what we think we know.”

So much for valid reactions to responsible reported scientific data. Now back to the Austin Daily Herald and its website. Some readers of the good ol’ print edition may not be aware the paper’s website not only posts the several published opinion pieces but encourages electronic readers to comment on them with their own opinions. Although the writers’ names of the print form are given and even their pictures shown, readers can post anonymously — hide their identify and escape all logical responsibility for what they say and moral accountability for how they say it.

Now, something seems to have changed since I was taught journalism in school, read books on journalistic ethics and listened as a member to presentations at the Society of Professional Journalists. A bedrock tenant of responsible journalism is you do not publish anonymous letters-to-the-editor without sufficient reason and with the letter writer identified to the editor. Except for a particular outrageous attack upon a sheriff some years ago, the Herald observes this policy. Not so with the online edition. It seems anything goes there. I am assured the editors do weed out the most offensive posts, but it is difficult for me to imagine how much worse those rejected can be than those indulged by being posted.

Although there have been some uncivil posts when I have commented on party politics, they are mild in comparison to the mean-spirited and even obscene reader comments from some gay advocates. To demonstrate the lack of credibility of such attacks, I chose to quote some in a column, confident fair-minded, thinking readers would recognize their lack of credibility. How can reasonable people respect opinions so expressed?

Most readers got the point and commented, “And they say we are the bigots!” Others, however, marveled that I should acknowledge such attacks, believing them without even reading what I had written. As to those who wrote such, they remain unconvicted by their behavior: “Well, you’re a bigot and deserve it; that’s how we talk.”

Dear readers, read what we write and form your own opinions. But do it from what we write, not what another person thinks or says we wrote.

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