What the public wants

What the public wants

Posted August 30th, 2011 by debritz

One of the first things I learned in newspapers is that an editor should not pay an undue amount of attention to the content of letters to the editor. Mostly, I was told (and later discovered for myself), they were written by the same people grinding the same axes, and they were in no way indicative of the consensus of the general (or targetted) public.

The fact though was that, if you wrote to the newspaper enough, the chances were that you'd get published often and you'd have a disproportionate say. The same is true of callers to talk radio - ring in a lot and, especially if you're provocative or a bit simple (so they can poke fun of you), or it's a slow time of day, you'll get to air. Now, the same is true in the online world - post a lot of comments and no matter how awful, inane or inflammatory they are, they will appear.

However, letters to the editor are almost always read carefully and edited by professional journalists who understand the laws of defamation, contempt of court and sub-judice, and have a fairly well-honed sense of what is appropriate and fair, and what isn't. Many papers also go to the effort of confirming the true identity of the writer.

On radio, producers vet callers before they go to air, and "live" broadcasts are on a 5-to-7-second delay, meaning the announcer or panel operator can press a "kill" button if things get out of hand and the offending words won't be heard by the listeners.

But, as I noted on Facebook and Twitter yesterday, it seems that some media websites are not paying enough attention to the comments being posted on their websites. I wrote this in regard to Sydney's 2UE, which was still publishing comments referring to allegations about Prime Minister Julia Gillard which The Australian newspaper had already acknowledged were false.

I asked: Where was the moderator? To my mind, many of the comments on that issue, and many other issues, should have been edited or not published at all. It's got nothing to do with my political views, it's the simple fact that if any media site publishes a defamatory remark and it does get sued, it will only have itself to blame.

Meanwhile, over at the Nova 106.9 website, a potentially more dangerous game was (and, as I write, still is) being played. They were running a Twitter feed displaying any tweets using a particular hashtag, plus Facebook comments from a fan page, about their new breakfast show. I'm assuming the process is completely automated, which may be cheap but it is in no way in the station's own interests.

As it's turned out so far, it's meant that Nova has been "publishing" some rather unflattering and potentially hurtful comments about its own new breakfast star, Camilla Severi. I feel sorry for her but I'm also tempted to say, good on Nova for allowing people to express their views freely, even if they are at odds with the company's own commercial aims.

Presumably Nova's research indicates that the comments are wrong, and the new show will be a success. Maybe they think any publicity is good publicity. (However, I'm sure if somebody rang in and started bagging the station or its stars, they'd be "killed" pretty quickly.)

But there's a more serious issue here than simple abuse: what if somebody were to tweet an extremely defamatory or racially offensive remark using the Nova-nominated hashtag and it ended up on the company's website for a sustained period of time? What if somebody sued? Who would be responsible: the author (if they could be identified) or the publisher?

Surely a test case on this issue is not far away.

PS: I've posted some of the comments here.