Monday, October 4, 2010

Press-Citizen's online comments: The good, the bad and the ugly

Printed in the Iowa City Press-Citizen, Feb. 3, 2010.

By Jeff Charis-Carlson, Iowa Cityscapes

In September 2006, the Iowa City Press-Citizen launched story chat -- a feature allowing readers the opportunity to register with www.press-citizen.com, choose a username and begin posting comments to the stories, columns and letters online.

In the nearly 3½ years since that time, Press-Citizen editors have participated in many discussions about the degree to which the anonymity afforded to online commenters and bloggers affects one of the essential roles newspapers play in helping democracy thrive: ensuring that minority viewpoints are protected against the tyranny of the majority.

In that time, we've gone back and forth as to whether online, anonymous comments:

• Represent a revolution in citizen journalism (which is good),

• Provide a crass way to drive up online traffic statistics at the expense of reasoned, vetted, well-edited news and opinion (which is bad) or

• Do a lot of both (which is just ugly).

In the past few years, we've found that, at times, cyber-anonymity is the only way to allow contrary opinions to be raised without retaliation against those who dare speak out against majority opinion, public officials and institutions.

At other times, however, it's a way for bitter people or bullies to sound off. And in the past 3½ years, we've had to kick off many participants for grossly inappropriate commentary that clearly violates the Press-Citizen's "Terms of Service."

But that at times ugly mix also is why scholars from the University of Iowa Project on the Rhetoric of Inquiry (POROI) became interested in focusing on the Press-Citizen's online conversations during the first session of a three-part public rhetoric seminar, "Media, Space, and Race: The Case of Iowa City's 'Southeast Side.'"

As stories about Iowa City's southeast-side neighborhoods, public-assisted housing programs and urban migrants have become hot topics in local politics, the Press-Citizen's online commenters have been trying to answer difficult questions about media, space and race within the limits placed on them at www.press-citizen.com.

Because POROI seminars usually focus on a single document, for tonight's session, I chose a story chat thread that began in response to a news report about a Dec. 1 meeting in which Iowa City Council approved the second reading of the city's curfew ordinance. A PDF document of the 112 comments on the Dec. 2 story is available at http://tinyurl.com/poroicomments.

Tonight's session, "Words Matter: Online Postings in the Iowa City Press-Citizen," will include a few introductory remarks from me, some prepared commentary by UI professors Frank Durham and André Brock and then a period of questions from the audience.

Although the story chat thread itself is the main document to read for the session, anyone interested in participating in tonight's discussion also might be interested in looking at:

• A transcript of the Dec. 1 Iowa City Council meeting (www.icgov.org/transcriptions/750.pdf),

• The text of the curfew ordinance that was approved (www.icgov.org/ site/CMSv2/Auto/media/release5883/1223200984850. pdf) and

• A copy of the P-C's "Terms of Service" (www.press-citizen.com/section/TERMS).

Tonight's forum isn't likely to "solve" any of our community's complicated problems. But it hopefully will offer a chance to step back and learn about the good, bad and ugly ways we talk about our community.

Opinion editor Jeff Charis-Carlson can be contacted at jcharisc@press-citizen.com or 887-5435. For information on "Media, Space and Race," visit http://poroi.grad.uiowa.edu or www.tinyurl.com/mediaspacerace.

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