The price of going public

A few months ago I shot a video on a borrowed N95 mobile outlining the reasons why I thought newspaper journalists were going to have to be more public and transparent on the web.

Media was becoming increasingly personality driven as users decide which sources to trust and which to reject, I argued. People want to know who is behind the news and what they stand for.

It was the first time I had put myself “out there” and, I have to admit, it wasn’t altogether a comfortable experience. I had always said I was happy being a newspaper journalist because it gave me the luxury of standing behind the photographer’s camera. Not anymore.

But, by becoming more visible, I met a wealth of interesting individuals on platforms such as Seesmic and Bambuser who have talked, debated and helped me learn so much more about what the web can offer. Going public didn’t seem so scary after all.

So when my editor Marc Reeves asked if he could put me forward as a potential panellist for The Big Debate I agreed. Three months ago I wouldn’t have dared but, I reasoned, how much worse could it be than doing a Seesmic post?!

Of course, it was far more nerve-wracking, but I was very glad to be given the opportunity to do it. There were a number of firsts and innovations that took place at The Big Debate that I am very proud of and will post about later.

But it also demonstrated the flipside of going public.

Someone who either watched the debate at the ICC or online decided that they did not like me. Not just that they didn’t like my arguments on the future of regional newspapers, but that they didn’t like me. So much so that they intimated in a comment on my blog that I must have done something rather unsavoury to get myself on the panel. The full comment, which was originally on my ‘about’ page, and the responses to it have been put into a seperate post.

That was pretty upsetting. The odd thing was that, when I read the first line, I was glad to see someone had been critical of what I said. I can learn from criticism.

But, when I realised it was turning into a personal attack, it became something altogether different. It felt threatening and misogynistic. After all, how many men have been accused of sleeping their way onto a panel? It was also a rather unhappy thing to learn that the IP address was local.

Now I know enough about flamers to have expected this to happen at some point. The web allows people to hide behind relative anonymity and, as a recent debate on women and the Internet suggests, it could have been far nastier. But it still knocked me a bit and led me to wonder: how many regional newspaper journalists are prepared for dealing with such comments online?

There are two issues at stake here:

1. The emotional response:

I can easily imagine journalists who are not used to online debate feeling very threatened. How would you prepare someone to deal with this and put it into context? It would be a great shame and loss if such a comment made them withdraw from online conversations altogether.

As an aside, I wonder if the current reluctance shown by some journalists to engage with readers online is, in part, a response to some of the comments that can be found in the old-style, poorly moderated, regional newspaper Internet forums where flamers are rife.

2. The public response.

How easy is it for someone who has been attacked to hit back in a similar way? Very: an individual that is hurt, angry and feels unfairly targeted is going to want to bite back with an equally nasty comment. I’ve seen it happen time and time again on blogs.

But, by hitting back, the conversation is only dragged further down into the depths of ignorance, anger and spite – hardly the qualities that are desirable in a journalist. Whilst it might be a perfectly understandable response to a nasty comment, I’m not sure it would be seen as acceptable.

As commenting is such an easy thing to do and can be done in seconds – without prior moderation by news editors or subs – it would seem necessary to develop some sort of strategy or format for journalists to use in dealing with personal comments.

I stress that there is also need for journalists to be able to distinguish between attacks on their points of view and attacks on their person. We must be able to accept strong, vociferous criticism of our ideas and show that we are capable of responding reasonably and intelligently. I think it’s easy for people to mix the two up.

All of the concerns above suggest to me that, as regional newspaper organisations push their journalists into a more public online arena, a little bit of guidance and support is needed to help them deal with the negative side of transparency.

One thing that has emerged from this is that I am lucky to be part of a strong online community (as can be seen by comments here and on Twitter) that will be very vocal if they see something unacceptable or offensive. I am thankful for that.

11 thoughts on “The price of going public

  1. Joanna,

    As someone who is new to putting themselves out there in a blog sense, and also simon who was once petrified to stand in front of others and speak, I thought you were fantastic on Monday. I guess the only thing to do is to ignore the individuals who feel they need to leave those sorts of comments. There are unfortunately a few out there who just want to criticise others… And they deserve nothing more than to be ignored!

    I hope it has not put you off public speaking, or from speaking your mind and I hope to be seeing you do the same again soon!

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  3. Jo, I think you’ve got a lot of things spot on here, and you did well to keep a calm response to what was a very nasty comment (even if there was a couple of good points in there).

    Much as I love the web, sadly that’s one of the downsides – and I think you’re right when you point out it could be one of the reasons journalists are reluctant to engage in online discources. They still should be encouraged to though and if they can get past the criticism, I genuinely think it’ll make them better for it.

    What the best way for regionals to deal with this problem is, I’m not entirely sure, but it’s something all editors need to think about.

  4. Whenever anyone puts themselves in a position where countless eyes will be staring at them it’s a sad fact of life that some of those eyes will belong to snipers.

    The galling thing about “quaker” is that I didn’t find any of his/her comments interesting. They were inane, ramblings of a angry person who doesn’t know where to direct that anger. Worst of all it was badly written and showed no backbone.

    If you’re going to attack someone personally then at least have the bravery to show your name and respond to the comments that other people have written.

    It takes a unique individual to stand up and voice opinions in a very public arena the way you have and you just need to carry on doing what you feel is right no matter how many people may use personal slur and then pretend it’s constuctive. Easy for me to say I know but one thing I have learnt is to surround oneself with the ones you trust and love and then take a sledgehammer to the rest.

  5. @gary andrew – the thing is, i wouldn’t even say the person ‘quaker’ did have any good points; they were just the usual tired global-jewish-masonic-lizard-p2-priory-of-sion-rosicrucian conspiracy nutter rantings about the media.

    i think i know (of) pretty much all the members of the religious society of friends in birmingham & can’t of many who would even have been capable of watching the debate online, let alone being interested in it to go to the bother of so doing; if it was that kind of quaker, i totally disassociate myself from them.

  6. Lack of integrity and self respect comes to mind when reading the so ‘eloquent’ criticism of Jo.

    Your insinuations speak volumes about you ‘Quaker’.

  7. Jason, Gary, Leonardo, Simon, Mum (hi Mum!),

    Thank you all for your supportive comments. They are very kind.

    I haven’t given up on the idea of voicing my opinions in public – I fundementally believe that it is a key part of transparency and that is the future of journalism. I want to embrace open debate and conversation.

    As I have said before, I am not afraid of criticism – I welcome it.

    But I have appreciated the kind words from those who have commented on this post and elsewhere. They have been a big, big support and have helped me relegate “Quakergate” from the “shocked and upset” to the “live and learn” category. Thank you.

  8. I watched the Big Debate, thanks to you talking about it on Twitter, as an interested consumer of the internet, and whilst not really the target audience for most of it, it was interesting nonetheless to hear the mainstream media view of itself and where it sees itself headed. I then catch up with your blog and find not a continuation of the big debate, but a personal attack. Contrary to others I saw nothing is Quaker’s contribution of relevance, even their analogies were weak. When I last looked trains still carry thousands around the country each day and I can still buy a holiday or an electrical appliance down any high street, in fact we have seen an explosion of out of town retail parks selling just those thing. All that happens is they up their game to compete and concentrate on what they can do better than the competition.

    The internet is just a delivery mechanism, competing directly with paper. I fear that paper newspapers will be lost in 100 years time, but we will still have journalists working in groups who know the area (Geographical or topical) that they are covering and can publish a consolidated, yet unbiased view of that area’s news. Those that just take ‘press releases’ and regurgitate them will die (thank goodness), but those who probe and get at the story will continue and grow.

    I hope that you will continue to be one of the latter, presentation will improve the more and more that you do it, but your argument was well thought out and well formed.

    If I disagree I am at liberty to disagree and argue my point, I can even give my opinion on how you presented and you it would seem will take that criticism, but if I dive into slander then not only should I suffer the consequences, but my argument will get lost behind that.

    I very much hope that you will not think twice about taking part in debates in the future.

  9. Cor blimey, if it’s not Surface Unsigned, its quacker, sorry, quaker-gate. Would appear wise that persons feeling strongly about something should write them down, save them, go away for a day – relax – then come back and see if it’s really necessary to say it that way.

    Personally, I often find it useful to tap out an angry response in a document (not email, no danger of accidentally pressing send), then sleep on it, or at least give it to a 3rd party to read first. Anger out of system, the real reply can then be written constructively. Not that quacker, damn done it again, quaker is listening.

    Oh, am I just allowed to take issue with “richbits” slander of the press release? Not all news is of the investigative type – some places genuinely do have “news” that’s useful or relevant to the wider world.

    For sure, its pretty darn annoying to read a blatant press release story that is obviously just there for the self satisfaction of the producer, with little relevance to anyone else – but don’t tar everyone in “PR” (a hateful meaningless term) with the same brush.

    I’ve been known to write a press release or two in my line of work (I reject the PR title though)….I even blog them now with links to info sources and contributors. It’s not a crime for a journalist to use a press release – so long as that’s a starting point for a good story, not a cut and paste exercise.

    Sorry, wrong place for that extra comment – don’t quacker me!

  10. @hemminac, I couldn’t agree more…. use of press releases and blogs as a source is to my mind the journalists bread and butter, how else can most stories get out in the first place?? However regurgitation of that press realease word for word is the sloppy journalism which appears far too often. With Blogging and news aggregation, then as a consumer, I can get the information directly if I want. The journalist however can add value by delving deeper into the story of the press release and validating it against competition for example.

    Oh and before I get blow down…. I’m not getting at journalist here, I know that filling column inches is not an easy job, and even harder to maintain a interesting, relevant and ever changing web news site, with pressure to get stories out as quickly as possible. However perhaps this is what has to change, getting quality over speed, with professional journalists delving deeper adding the value. Or am I just naive?

  11. Having come across this late, after the heat of the moment, I am surprised by the level of response, and presume that my 2p will clarify a few things, even at the risk of dragging it out further.

    These points might act as an addendum to the various links about dealing with trolls. A bit more how-to, or perhaps, how-not-to.

    One, I’m surprised that it’s raised so many hackles. Trolls are intent on getting people to react, and this one has done very well out of it, no credit to those who fell for it.

    Two, it’s a sad fact of life that so many of the respondents have chosen to be immature in their responses, making threats and hurling insults, sometimes well beyond the individual concerned to whole groups. Not a pretty sight. Quaker continues to get the better of people.

    Three, the original insulter has either moved on to pastures new, or is now unlikely to make a more positive contribution. The latter may have always been a slim chance, but I’ll bet it’s gone to zero now. Where’s the prospect of engaging in a debate and perhaps learning a thing or two?

    Four, while it is important to support one’s friends and colleagues, it’s is also important to respond to criticism constructively. For example, in the original comment, it would have been relatively easy to query any of the points or insinuations made. An incisive reading of the comment would have let the air out rapidly, and would equally quickly distinguish a crank from a critical friend. It’s disturbing to see that prominent people in Birmingham prefer to respond with threats and insults. I suppose it’s based on long and weary experience of dealing with flamers and so forth.

    That said, I want to add that it’s courageous of you to put your head above the wall in the first instance, which I hope is part of your journalistic instinct to find out what’s happening and report on it. Well done in that regard, and I hope you have the moxie to keep at it.

    It’s also reassuring to see so many reasoned and empathetic responses from people. They give me something to emulate.

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