Fresh Air of Civility

As I write this it is the beginning of October, and as we move into our typical fall climate, I seem to be getting a whiff of civility in the air. I’m pretty sure that I have not encountered that rather refreshing smell here for quite some time. Has anyone else noticed that things have gotten a little nicer and more civil since Sept. 24, the day the Evansville Courier & Press began requiring a subscription to read the newspaper online and to comment?

Let me kick off this discussion by firmly stating that a community, in order to grow and thrive, needs a strong daily newspaper. Prior to the Evansville Press ceasing to publish in 1998, my wife and I subscribed to both papers and I still am, and will continue to be, a subscriber to the Evansville Courier & Press. But I am rather adamant, as are many others, that the “dark cloud,” as it was referred to by many in the community, and the incivility that was occurring in our community, were a direct reflection of people being afforded the opportunity to make any type of anonymous comment, and often under a variety of different usernames. This might seem, at the outset, to be a rather strong position for a magazine publisher to take, but I have had this conversation with people actively involved in the community as well as political leaders, and so I know I am not alone in my thought process — in fact, the people who have discussed this with me all agree.

My opinion is that we have allowed ourselves to be governed and our community mindset to be undermined by what anonymous commenters are writing — without having any idea who they are. Many of these commenters, I have come to learn, have obvious vendettas, are competitors, are on opposite sides of the political spectrum during election time, etc. Many leaders in the community, including myself, have found themselves being insulted and ridiculed over a variety of things that may or may not have an ounce of truth. In recent memory, Evansville Living constructed and marketed the Downtown Idea Home on Washington Avenue that ended up winning a national award. As soon as it was written about in the paper, the first two comments were very nice and complimentary, but by the third, we were already under attack. My point is this: If it were reported that someone just cured cancer, someone lying in anonymous wait would point out that they didn’t like the research conducted to cure it.

In a recent study published online in February in The Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, Americans read a fake blog post on nano-technology and were asked in survey questions how they felt about a subject. They either read insult-laden comments or civil comments. After reviewing the study, a September op-ed in the New York Times said this:

“Uncivil comments not only polarized readers, but they often changed a participant’s interpretation of the news story itself. In the civil group, those who initially did or did not support the technology — whom we identified with preliminary survey questions — continued to feel the same way after reading the comments. Those exposed to rude comments, however, ended up with a much more polarized understanding of the risks connected with the technology. Simply reading an ad hominem attack in a reader comment was enough to make study participants think the downside of the reported technology was greater than they’d previously thought.”

The op-ed concluded that even a fractious minority wields enough power to skew a reader’s perception of a story, and that when trolls overwhelm the comments, it diminishes our ability to have lively intellectual debate. Isn’t that the whole gist of a comments section?

Simply put, I fail to understand the rationale that allows people to anonymously, and often erroneously, libel people and organizations. My experience has taught me that people are mighty brave when they don’t have to put their name behind posts. And for those commenters with multiple screen names and thousands of posts, I tend to doubt their intent is to make this community a better place.

I know not everyone will agree with this opinion piece, but I can guarantee you this: if you want to write a letter to this publisher, you will sign your name to it. If you felt strong enough to write thousands of posts, asserting your opinion on literally everything in the newspaper, every single day, surely your thoughts are worth roughly $10 per month (what the newspaper is currently charging for a digital subscription). But for right now, the air sure smells better over our fair city.

As always, I look forward to hearing from you; just be willing to sign your name, please.

Todd A. Tucker

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