A recent story in The Washington Post about a civil verdict in favor of a man wrongfully convicted of murder provoked readers to explore the principle of justice in America, particularly as it relates to black citizens. Their discussion, if you could characterize the virtual interchange as that, illustrates the fallacy of unmediated online comment sections as legitimate exercises in public discourse ethics.
Post reporter Spencer Hsu described how a jury ruled that District of Columbia police violated the civil rights of Donald E. Gates, when it effectively framed him for the murder of a university student in 1981. Gates served 27 years in prison for a crime that he did not commit, before being exonerated in 2009 as a result of DNA testing (Hsu, S., 2015).
Not surprisingly, the story elicited strong opinions from readers, most of whom decried the injustice and called for punishment of the police officers involved in the case who deliberately falsified evidence in attempting to have Gates convicted. A typical comment: “Any detectives involved in this travesty should be stripped of any retirement benefits they may be receiving, lose every penny of wealth they may have accumulated, and lose any property they own. The only way to deter this type of judicial or law enforcement misconduct (and the term misconduct is way to mild for these actions), is to inflict serious and irreparable personal and financial pain. In this case, unfortunately, the only folks to feel pain will be the law abiding citizens of the District of Columbia.”
Some readers tied the case to the current national debate about perceived biases in the judicial system against black Americans, and the related “Black Lives Matter” movement. Others cited the case as an example of a fatally flawed system incapable of doling out justice consistently and fairly.
Given the flagrant nature of the case, hyperbolic sentiments are to be expected and some perhaps warranted. Many points were legitimate, while others were irrational (“Stripped of retirement?? They should be shot!”). A theme of what constitutes appropriate legal process provided examples of “undue confidence and unsubstantiated opinion,” when some readers weighed in only to be corrected by others apparently with legal training and experience.
This particular collection of comments typifies why such online discussions are not suitable for protecting the public “sacred space.” Foremost, there was little or no balance in points of view evident. The discussion lacked legitimate voices of the judicial system, such as police officers, prosecutors, and judges. Although the story illustrated how the system failed, the public certainly would have benefited from an eloquent defense of the broader principles of justice involved, explanations for why the injustice occurred, and what can and is happening to prevent such problems from recurring in Washington and elsewhere. What about the voice of Gates or others who had been wrongfully convicted, or those of family members of the victims involved in their cases? Public accountability in the pursuit of public discourse ethics mandates “the communicative commitments of (a) diversity of ideas, (b) engagement of public decision making, and (c) a public account for continuing a communicative practice or changing that practice” (Arnett et al., 2009, pp. 102-103). All three would have been served by adding diverse perspectives to the discussion.
I have long believed that editors and content managers who oversee online news stories and their comment sections are committing journalistic malpractice but not taking a more active moderating role. In the spirit of First Amendment free expression and/or out of sheer laziness, they follow lais·sez-faire policies and only intervene for blatantly racist, sexist, or similarly offensive remarks. As a result, these comment sections rarely offer up any substantive conversations that might legitimately lead to societal benefit –- at least in proportion to the effort and number of words rendered in such spaces across the Internet. Most readers simply ignore these comments, much less learn anything from them.
Informed moderators charged with enforcing balance and well-reasoned comments would go a long way to correcting this problem. This may not be as difficult as it appears; the discipline involved is not so different from good old-fashioned editing of the caliber we used to see in newspaper and magazine reporting. Ensuring fairness, balance, well thought-out positions, and respectful exchanges would be a good start. There may be some risk that those with limited writing or communications skills could feel left out, but moderators could be trained to recognize and accommodate their needs in order to encourage participation. It would be worth the extra effort, given the potential benefit to the protection and preservation of our public realm.
Arnett, R.C., Harden Fritz, J.M. and Bell, L.M (2009). Communication ethics literacy: dialogue and difference. California: SAGE Publications, Inc.
Hsu, S. (2015, November 18). D.C.police framed man imprisoned 27 years for 1981 murder, U.S. jury finds. The Washington Post. Retrieved from http://www.washingtonpost.com