How many Connecticut drivers have been ticketed for texting?

This is a Tableau graphic I created for a Connecticut Health Investigative Team story about the rising costs of distracted driving.

Participation Inequality: Women and Online Comments

Online comments sections are our modern day venues for collaboration, for public discourse, for democratic deliberation. The internet was supposed to even the playing field for participation.
 But for many women, wading into the incivility of online comments or social media exchanges is like walking alone down a scary back alley, or into an angry mob with torches and pitchforks. Why put yourself at risk?

The harassment that happens in online comments section is a form of the “heckler’s veto.” It keeps many female speakers from publicly expressing their views. This threatens to chill digital public discourse by discouraging half the citizenry from participating at all.

Women should chime in. How can we do this safely, bravely and regularly?

Here are slides from a thoughtful Women’s History Month discussion I moderated at the Hartford Public Library with columnist/author Susan Campbell and UConn student organizer Haddiyyah Ali about women’s voices in online comments.

Click on the ⚙ icon to view my speaker notes or view them below, as prepared.

SPEAKER NOTES, AS PREPARED

As we get started I’d like you to think about the conversations you have on a daily basis.

– What are your exchanges like when you talk to strangers?

– What happens when you talk to anyone about what’s happening in the news, or lately, about politics?

– What sets the tone of those conversations?

– Are there subjects you avoid talking about in mixed company?

– Lastly, I want you to consider: what’s the largest audience you’ve ever spoken to? Continue reading “Participation Inequality: Women and Online Comments”

WNPR Live Town Hall: “The Press, The President, And The Public”

Here I am answering a question from the audience during a live town hall about "The Press, The President and the Public" Photo by Ryan Caron King/WNPR
Here I am answering a question from the audience during a live town hall hosted by WNPR about “The Press, The President and the Public.” Photo by Ryan Caron King

What’s the role of the local press in a Donald Trump presidency? WNPR invited me to participate in a live town hall discussion of the topic on Monday, Feb. 13, 2017, with Hartford Courant Publisher Andrew Julien and Journal Inquirer Managing Editor Chris Powell.

(I start talking around the 12-minute mark.)

The harbinger of our hateful electorate? Look no further than online comments

The contentious post-election climate has left many Americans wondering how our democracy became so spiteful. I think it’s time to heap some blame on online comments.

The ability to say offensive things online on a daily basis without consequences has led to new, and more harmful, norms for civic behavior. Toxic fuming online, ad hominem attacks in comment streams, the spread of fake news (a.k.a. lies & propaganda) — none of it is constructive. How is our modern democracy going to solve any problems if our digitally-connected citizenry is unable to use public online forums to talk AND listen AND identify where we may actually agree?

Endless one-column comment streams of reactive bile, hate speech and bot propaganda aren’t helping anyone understand the varied positions on important issues. Incivility in public digital discourse doesn’t move the needle forward. It just shuts the discussion down.

It’s time for us to find a better way.

Why diversity in newsrooms matters, now more than ever

Leaves by Chris Lawton via Unsplash.com
Leaves by Chris Lawton via Unsplash.com

“[News] is the product of a bunch of people sitting in a room, using their own best judgment. Their own best judgment is shaped by their own lives. If you do not have people in that room who lived a very wide array of different types of lives, your publication will have holes.” —Hamilton Nolan, Deadspin.com

“Too often, the views of Trump’s followers—which is to say, the people who just elected our next president—were dismissed entirely by an establishment media whose worldview is so different, and so counter, to theirs that it became chic to belittle them and wave them off. Reporters’ personal views got in the way of their ability to hear what was happening around them.” —Kyle Pope, Columbia Journalism Review

“This is all symptomatic of modern journalism’s great moral and intellectual failing: its unbearable smugness…Journalists love mocking Trump supporters. We insult their appearances. We dismiss them as racists and sexists. We emote on Twitter about how this or that comment or policy makes us feel one way or the other, and yet we reject their feelings as invalid. It’s a profound failure of empathy in the service of endless posturing.” — Will Rahn, CBS News

“If I have a mea culpa for journalists and journalism, it’s that we’ve got to do a much better job of being on the road, out in the country, talking to different kinds of people than the people we talk to — especially if you happen to be a New York-based news organization — and remind ourselves that New York is not the real world.” –Dean Baquet, New York Times editor-in-chief

“If anyone is owed anything, the press owes the public diversified newsrooms that truly reflect America, to empathize with Trump supporters whom he calls the “forgotten,” but also to stand up, speak up, and protect the rights of those he threw under the bus while courting his base.” —Helen Ubinas, Philly.com

Katherine Miller, political editor at BuzzFeed News, told Poynter that lack of diversity in newsrooms has mattered in a year dominated by stories such as the Black Lives Matter movement, the rise of Latino voters and the blue-collar vote: “Anyone can report on these things, obviously,” Miller said, “but having people familiar with these things on a deeper level adds so much to coverage, reaches big parts of the country and opens up new stories for everyone on a political staff.”

“Twitter was home of the most incisive commentary about the clear and present danger posed by a presidential candidate who writes off every Black person in America as having nothing to lose by voting for him, floats the idea of a blanket ban on members of the fastest-growing religion on Earth, and threatens to deport more undocumented immigrants than actually exist,” wrote Meredith D. Clark on Poynter.org. “Beyond the reactionary headlines of such statements, there was little specific, sustained journalistic effort to dig deeper into such claims, and explore them through the lenses of the communities they impacted.”

“We also need to do a far better job of encouraging open communication among the journalists already in newsrooms, because if people are too afraid to point out our blind spots, even the pitiful diversity we already have can’t offer us much. I know far too many well-intentioned, brilliant white male editors who dismiss or fail to take seriously the concerns of their younger, more diverse staff members — and when it happens to my former students, it breaks my heart. And it does. Regularly.” – Carrie Brown, Social Journalism Director at CUNY Graduate School of Journalism

“While newsrooms have begun to talk more about diversity, it is more often seen in terms of race and gender than class and geography. But if voters are making decisions based on identity and values, rather than facts, it becomes even more important for newsrooms to look and sound like their audiences.” – Helen Lewis, Deputy Editor, New Statesman

“We should focus on being more local, more networked, more diverse, and fiercely independent. This will improve community access to reliable information, rebuild trust in us, and strengthen democracy.” – Michael Oreskes, NPR’s senior vice president of news and editorial director.

“While we can go back and forth on the legitimacy of the media bias charges that have been flung at the industry for decades, you will never even begin to shake that impression without doing a better job of bringing different voices into your newsrooms. These voters aren’t listening to you, because they don’t think you are listening to them.” – Heather Bryant, Knight Fellow, Stanford University

Nasty online comments continue, unabated and emboldened by Election 2016

The darkness and abuse of online comments continues, emboldened. Photo by Brandon Morgan/Unsplash.com
Don’t expect the dark and ugly tone of online comments to brighten anytime soon. Photo by Brandon Morgan/Unsplash.com

Around 8:30 a.m. on Thursday, Nov. 10, I discovered through my Twitter feed a thoughtful column about the potential makeup of the United States Supreme Court when Donald J. Trump becomes president.

The commentary piece, “Don’t Expect the Supreme Court To Change Much,” was written by Cass R. Sunstein, an academic I admire, and published 16 hours earlier by Bloomberg View.

There were 25 comments posted at the bottom of the article when I read it. Bloomberg’s comment platform is powered by Disqus. Readers have the choice to click on a button below the story to display the comments.

Here’s what I saw when I clicked:

The first comment is critical of the judges, but it is a civil comment. The response immediately below it refers to Democrats as “stupid.”

Next in line is a misogynistic and vulgar comment that refers to Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg as an “old c@nt.” 

That missive is answered by a racist and obscene posting: “Nobody called her that in a coonsage – must be all wet now.” 

A racist, Islamophobic swipe at President Barack Obama can be found slightly further down in the comment stream: “Screw that dumb muslim halfbreed.” 

And finally, as of 9:30 a.m., the comment thread wraps up with a racist description of Justice Clarence Thomas, calling him a “bumbling house slave.” 

So let’s recap.

Below this well-written article by a regarded scholar about the future of the Supreme Court, Bloomberg News has hosted a discussion with a group of about 15 Disqus commenters. The commenters have convened in this public space to A) insult all members of a political party, B) belittle a woman in power by describing her as a female body part and crudely sexualizing it, and C) ridicule two highly accomplished men because of their race.

Comment moderation? None.

Bloomberg's comment policy, posted on top of its story-level discussion forums.
Bloomberg’s comment policy, posted on top of its story-level discussion forums.

How does this hateful “discussion” add value to anyone’s understanding of this topic?

It doesn’t. Rather, it colors the perception of the news, and undermines people’s understanding of the information.

Sadly, if you’ve ever read online comments, you know the tone of this comment stream is typical in unmoderated spaces at the bottom of news sites and social media posts. And it’s been this way well before Election 2016 and President-Elect Trump’s exemplary history of Twitter tirades.

Online comments are only going to get worse if the post-election “exuberant escalation of offense-giving” is any indication, and if news publishers and media organizations don’t step up and show some leadership and responsibility for elevating our public digital discourse.

Think Mark Twain would have used social media?

Mark Twain on Discovery
See my presentation “How Writers Can Leverage Social Media.” Quote from twainquotes.com. Image via AP.

For writers, social media is both a tool and a trap. If social media had existed when Mark Twain was publishing, think the American author and humorist would have used it?

The writer also known as Samuel Clemens put a 100-year embargo on his autobiography. Why? He was known to be fiercely protective of his reputation. He did not want the details of his private life to damage his reputation, to negatively influence the readers of his books, or to open up his family to attack. One of the pitfalls of social media is its blurring of the personal and the professional.

If Mr. Clemens had social media, he might have used it judiciously. He prized his privacy. It is one reason why he used a variety of pen names, the most famous being Mark Twain.

But the endorphin rush of likes, follows and compliments that social media can bring might have tempted Twain to jump into the Twitter and Facebook fray.

“Compliments make me vain and when I am vain, I am insolent and overbearing. It is a pity, too, because I love compliments. I love them even when they are not so.
My child, I can live on a good compliment two weeks with nothing else to eat.”
— Mark Twain, Letter to Gertrude Natkin, March 2, 1906

No doubt Twain would have hated all the mean-spirited criticism, and the rampant copyright infringement.

“I like criticism, but it must be my way.”
–Mark Twain, Mark Twain’s Autobiography, 2010

Because Mr. Clemens was so opinionated and freely wrote under a pseudonym, it is not unfathomable to imagine him engaging in some anonymous online trolling. I mean, Twain was a master at one-liners and zingers.

“Sometimes my feelings are so hot that I have to take the pen and put them out on paper to keep them from setting me afire inside; then all that ink and labor are wasted because I can’t print the results.” –Mark Twain, “The Privilege of the Grave,” published in Who is Mark Twain?

If you are trying to make your mark on the modern world as a writer, I do not recommend you partake in anonymous online trolling. But there are plenty of other things writers can do with social media for discovery, (distraction) and distribution. This presentation, How Writers Can Leverage Social Media is from a workshop I led at the Mark Twain House & Museum‘s 5th Annual Writers Weekend in Hartford, Connecticut on September 24, 2016.

Data visualizations: Asthma rates in Connecticut

Using the visualization software program Tableau Public and data sets from the Connecticut Department of Public Health, I created two data visualizations about asthma rates in Connecticut for the Connecticut Health Investigative Team.

 

Reading too many comments

Internet-Comments_b5c857_4604977

I’ve spent two mind-numbing weeks watching the national political conventions.

The online comments surrounding them? Fear, loathing, anger, hype, snark.

So much polarization. All mistrust and motivated reasoning. Just take a glimpse at WSJ’s Blue Feed, Red Feed for realtime examples.

“Live chat” comments on YouTube live streams of the #RNCinCLE and #DemsinPhilly conventions were undoubtedly the worst I encountered.

I need to detox.

Consequence-free speech

anonymous online speech

“My mood, I say, was one of exaltation. I felt as a seeing man might do, with padded feet and noiseless clothes, in a city of the blind. I experienced a wild impulse to jest, to startle people, to clap men on the back, fling people’s hats astray, and generally revel in my extraordinary advantage.” H.G. Wells, The Invisible Man, 1897Chapter 21.

Anonymous online comments are often audacious, as in “having a confident and daring quality that is often seen as shocking or rude.”

Is how we talk about difficult topics online having an influence how civilly we treat/talk to each other offline? In this current political election cycle, it seems like civility is regressing online and off.

Is online anonymity the foundation of incivility? I’m not convinced. Real name policies haven’t cured the cancer of incivility in most online comment forums. I find Facebook comments — most of which reveal people’s actual names, as well as their photos, workplace and familial connections — to be nastier and meaner than the pseudonym-powered comments on most news websites.

Does the credibility of a comment at the bottom of a news story depend on whether or not it is signed? I’m not convinced of that either. Your average citizen commenter – whether it’s Joe Jones from Tampa or Sally Smith from Stamford – won’t be known to the mass media audience anyway, so their “credibility” doesn’t come from their name.

Like NBC”s “The Voice,” we don’t need to know commenters names, hometowns or what they look like to judge whether the ideas/opinions they post are worthwhile. We judge credibility after reading what they say.

Is the comment smart? Emotional? Snarky? Provocative? Condescending? Vulgar? Is it filled with typos and grammatical errors? Does it challenge our perspective or present some new information? Is it incendiary? Hateful?

If the comment is signed by a well-known person – a celebrity or public figure – then the audience may prejudge the comment based by that person’s existing reputation.

If an ordinary commenter’s title or location information is posted with the comment, that person’s professional expertise or where they are from may influence their credibility. Silly or offensive avatars and pseudonyms can undermine credibility, too.

Facebook commenting threads can show a user’s self-disclosed location and/or title, which supplies the audience with useful credibility signals. But it is not uncommon for that self-disclosed information to be used by dissenting commenters with opposing agendas as ammunition to attack (such as when I saw a self-described clergyman post a hateful comment on a USAToday politics story and then get pummeled with insults from the crowd pointing out his hypocrisy.)

Real name policies on online forums, however, do make the threat of “real life” offline consequences more of a possibility, and may therefore constrain some online commenters from releasing a tirade, or encourage others to be more thoughtful before posting. In forcing online commenters to attach their real names and their professional/community reputations to comments posted in the public sphere, online commenters own their opinions and any impact/fallout as a result of broadcasting their ideas. Like anything posted on the Internet publicly, online comments are searchable and archived. Real name ownership adds a level of societal consequences, whereas unsigned comments are essentially consequence-free.

How dangerous is consequence-free speech?