Freedom of speech is a basic principle on which democracy depends. But the right to say anything you want can teeter-totter between a sharp nod of agreement from some--with the underlying hope that people will use their best judgment in paying it heed or not--and a slow, quizzical shake of the head from others that suggests "I'd like to say yes, but ... some things are better left unsaid."
NPR is of both minds, and currently struggling to strike the balance. To serve a broader interpretation of the U.S.'s first amendment, the radio news organisation is allowing more liberal use of language and tone on its Facebook page. American Journalism Review writes that in this forum, conversations tend to be more casual and offhand than on the official website. Rather than adhering to polite dialogue in the comment thread, "our Facebook users are snarky and swear like sailors" says Andy Carvin, NPR's senior strategist.
As for the more reluctant interpretation of free speech, maintaining civil dialogue is the priority, one that is contributive in nature with the intention of rounding out a story. NPR has been instituting tighter guidelines for its website, npr.org, since last October in response to what the American Journalism Review calls "barrages of inflammatory posts by trolls and spammers" that pollute the radio's discussion board.
These guidelines are about to get tighter still next month, writes NPR's public representative, Alicia C. Shepard, in her blog NPR Ombudsman, adding that in some cases comments will be moderated before they are even posted. The details are still being worked out.
This is in direct response to the "mean-spirited, racist and sexist comments" posted on NPR's website regarding a story about the culture of sexual assault in Egypt and the attack on CBS correspondent Lara Logan in Tahrir Square last week.
In reference to what can be seen as a smart exploration of the topic (click here to read the story), to follow is a sample of the comments deemed inappropriate according to NPR's website guidelines:
"I've always wondered why networks seem so determined to send women into these situations. It's like they're trying to prove how politically correct they are. This time it came to bite them in the butt."
"Those dirty Muslims. Now I know why their women wear burkas. It's because the men can't control themselves."
"Arab men are generally some of the (most) misogynistic people on earth. Disgusting culture, disgusting people, disgusting religion, disgusting nation."
"They're Arabs, what do you expect? They're nasty people from the dirtiest place on earth."
Shepard is quick to note that most of NPR's audience "didn't jump on the 'blame the victim' bandwagon." But some, as indicated in the above comments, viewed Logan's attack as an easy, anonymous way to disparage Egyptians and other Arab men, Islamic law, and female correspondents who venture into male-dominated venues.
The question is, How do these contribute to the conversation?
On NPR's website, comment threads are seen as a way for reporters to engage the public and foster dialogue and debate, says Carvin. These comments can be an asset to the radio because of the informed opinion and thought often given, upon which NPR has come to rely.
Case in point: Carvin cites the 2009 "balloon boy" hoax in Colorado as an example. While NPR reporters were covering the incident and trying to figure out where the boy had flown off to, conversation among online readers helped clarify that the boy had never disappeared to begin with.
"They started doing the physics ... they crunched the numbers and found that it was impossible for the balloons to be carrying a boy of that weight." According to the American Journalism Review, before many other newsrooms had figured out the truth, NPR's online audience "had already made a very rational conclusion," Carvin says.
But the downside to reader comments is that people can be horrible to each other, especially when they can hide behind a computer screen and comment anonymously. On Facebook, journalist John McQuaid noted that people seem to view the Internet as a conscience- and consequence-free zone, according to NPR Ombudsman, writing, "For a lot of people, ordinary social constraints disappear when they go online, and there's usually no punishment for outrageous behavior ... And unlike most social interactions it's all conducted in front of a big audience, which is probably in some way an additional incentive to transgress."
Kaye Myers, NPR's product manager for social media tools, adds, "What we want to avoid are those comments that 'feed the trolls.' These are the people who throw firebombs and then the discussion goes off the rails. It only takes a few people for a discussion to turn bad. In my experience, people don't like to contribute to a site where the comments devolve into ugliness."
Besides auditing comments before they are posted, what else can NPR do? Another idea is to remove the element of anonymity. It stands to reason that people might behave more civilly if their names and identities are attached to what they are saying.
To be continued.