Sunday, February 24, 2008

All That Bad, Bad Stuff

From three whole weeks of reading The Miami Herald, I’ve gained the impression that its readership is passionate. They are split over the plan, passed this week by the city and county governments, to construct a traffic tunnel and a new stadium for the Florida Marlins. The main sticking point is that the plan, slated at nearly $500 million, was never put to referendum.

This has lead many readers to cite this as a symptom of rampant corruption. The old-boy network has taken money from taxpayers and from two redevelopment authorities that were not chartered for large-scale commercial development projects. The old-boy network gave the money to their own – the elites who are going to make big bucks from the development.

And – this is an ugly issue, but it must be mentioned – there is a fair amount of acrimony against the community of Cuban exiles. The Herald, like many, many other media outlets, allows readers to post responses to its stories, blogs, letters to the editor and columnists.

After President Fidel Castro announced his resignation this week, the flood of such remarks for and against were often acrimonious, bitter. Although many were concerned with Castro’s decision to quit, often they spoke either for or against the value of the Cuban community in Miami. I have used the word ugly, and ugly some were.

The instant on-line comments on any Herald item are often odious, Herald ombudsman Edward Shumacher-Matos, said in a column from Dec. 16, 2007. Put another way, the paper has a problem with ``ranters.’’

The problem is so bad, he said, that it begs for some sort of regulation of the Internet.

After the Herald informed its readers of the shooting death of the Washington Redskins’ safety Sean Taylor in November,

``Taylor was called a `thug,’ and an `animal.’ Contributors, with absolutely no evidence, openly speculated under The Miami Herald’s banner whether a drug deal or sexual cheating was involved. In what amounts to a public tarring, some suggested that Taylor’s virtual wife, the mother of his 18-month-old child and long-time partner, did it.’’

The Herald deleted responses that were actually much worse, Shumacher-Matos said. In a column from Dec. 16, 2007, he said the paper uses software that screens out remarks that include offensive words. I’ve seen words using the dollar sign instead of the letter S.

Herald editors don’t take unilateral initiative to delete the offensive material, Shumacher-Matos said. Instead editors ``react to readers who complain by clicking on a box next to each comment’’ before deleting messages.

Part of the answer might lies with requiring readers to register with the paper’s Web site before they submit their comments, Shumacher-Matos said.

``Registration… is a must. On the Taylor story, both ESPN.com and WashingtonPost.com reported far fewer offensive materials than The Miami Herald. One difference is that those sites require registration, including confirmation of the reader’s e-mail address.’’

Regarding registration: Right now the Herald requires on-line readers to register by providing, along with an e-mail address, a user name, password, first and last name, the city or town, state and country where the reader lives, their gender, year of birth, and to indicate whether they subscribe to the Heralds print edition.

The same information, and nothing more, is asked of those who want to post comments on stories.

By e-mail I asked Shumacher-Matos whether the registration system is the one he had in mind in December, or whether a new one is in the works.

Regarding deletion of offensive messages, I asked Shumacher-Matos if Herald editors will delete a message even if they considered it inoffensive, just because a reader clicks on the ``Report as violation’’ link.

I got an automated reply saying editors and Shumacher-Matos consider ``issues of coverage, readers [sic] questions and significant media topics and writing occasional articles’’ about them.

More on the issue of deletion of offensive messages in the post below this one.

Shumacher-Matos said the Herald must be willing to spend money to hire editors who would review comments before they are posted, as the New York Times has done.

There are people out there who believe that the Internet should not be regulated, and many medium are not ready to challenge that belief, he said.

``Media companies today, with reader and viewership numbers dropping along with their stock prices, are further cowed by the arrogant claims of the ascendant internet culture and its Ayn-Rand like absolutism against any controls.’’

In November 2007, the number of visitors to MiamiHerald.com was up 66 percent from the previous year, Shumacher-Matos said.

``(R)egistration might slow or even temporarily reverse such strong growth. I suspect from their language that the ranters in the site are not the young, upwardly mobile or educated readers that the Miami Herald and its advertisers want.’’

This reminds me of what Karin Wahl-Jorgensen, in ``Journalists and the Public: Newsroom Culture, Letters to the Editor, and the Public,’’ discussed as the ``normative-economic’’ approach that editors use to decide which letters to publish. The idea is that a desirable letter will promote public debate and increase circulation at the same time.

But editors can keep letters with racist, sexist and homophobic, etc., material out of a newspaper.

Not so easy to keep the crap off the on-line instant comment board.

Shumacher-Matos said,

… (I)f news is moving from being a lecture to a conversation with readers, then readers must be transparent and play by the same ethical rules as the media… The law may catch up with the internet anyway, and should.’’

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