Triviality and nastiness: the dark side of journalism online

November 19, 2011



The relationship between news and audiences is more interactive than ever and that is both good and bad news, a panel of journalists told delegates at a conference marking the 100th anniversary of Marshall McLuhan’s birth.

“When I worked for the Calgary Herald, I would file a story, then it would be published the next day in the paper… Now with online it’s more of a conversation, as news comes in the story is evolving. And there is no deadline, you can keep adding to the online story or perhaps you can write another story and link to the previous story,” said Emily Senger, web editor of “There is more of an opportunity to interact with content online. You can click on hyperlinks within a story and you might read something in the story of interest to you and bookmark it. So it’s a lot more interactive than reading it with your eyes and just taking it in.”

Senger was speaking as part of a panel at the McLuhan 100 Then, Now, Next International Conference  in Toronto, discussing the connection between news reporting in 2011 and McLuhan’s ideas. She was joined by Kathy Vey, editor in chief of and Joyce Smith, director of Ryerson University’s School of Journalism graduate program.

Smith, who referred to McLuhan’s description of information from around the globe as the “constant beating of drums,” asked panelists whether the immediacy of news in the 27/7 news cycle was always a good thing or “a potential headache.”

Senger argued that digital media makes it easier to “amplify the sound because information is more accessible and the pace of information is faster.” But Vey highlighted the negative consequences this fast-paced news cycle can have on the legitimacy of news content.

“With the instantaneous production of news, people love the immediacy of it all and people who are posting on Twitter actually feel they are having a conversation, but there (are now fewer) editors and copy editors and the people who filter it all,” she said.

Smith, who moderated the panel, said there is a dark side to the free exchange of ideas on the Internet.

“When I worked at the, before I came to Ryerson, we used to guess how many posts there would be in the comments section before someone called someone else Hitler on almost any topic about anything,” she said. She reminded the audience that McLuhan anticipated a return to tribalistic aggression in a world in which people felt that their traditional identities were eroding.

Vey said online nastiness highlights the importance of moderating commentary on, a news site that allows anyone to suggest a story for journalists to investigate.

“In the comments section of news websites it’s really distressing to see the level of discourse. It usually starts off quite civilized but all it takes is one person to say something and for it to become a free-for-all,” she said. “At OpenFile we made the conscious decision to encourage people to use their real identities where possible. We use a system called disqus where people can comment via your Facebook profile or your Twitter profile so it does add an established identity…It’s like when you’re having a cocktail party and your guests start to get drunk, you as the host are obligated to step in before someone gets hurt. It’s like going around the tables, freshening up the flower arrangements and just making sure your conversation is being toned rather than thrown out there.”

Although discussion online can get ugly, Vey insisted that public commentary is often essential and beneficial, particularly when it comes to political coverage.

“It is our principle that we have to listen to what the public has to say. We just can’t accept what a politician tells us is the news. We have to consult with the people who are actually on the street and in the houses and find out what concerns them and why. What are political leaders not talking about and what would you like to know?” said Vey, who emphasised OpenFile’s reliance on public input for story ideas.

“Anyone can open a file and suggest a story on our site…very often people put up story ideas that we think aren’t going to go anywhere, but they will catch fire among the readers. People will come in with different views and then we often get a reporter who will come along and say, hey can I do that story? It’s an organic way of news.”

Panellists also voiced concerns over whether genuine news content on the Internet was getting lost in the entertaining element of the online world. Vey argued that serious content can’t come without elements of entertainment.

“Not only can you share funny pictures of cats on the Internet but you can also share the effects of an earthquake and if you take away cute cats, recipes and the funny cartoons, you’re also taking away people’s ability to talk about this information…so the Internet is at the same time an evolutionary way in enabling us to share,” said Vey. “If you’re in the right place at the right time, you can record news, and this can lead to a whole lot of policy changes including views in Canada on tasers. Because (an ordinary citizen) was able to get footage and because he was able to put it on the Internet, people learned about police brutality.”

Senger concurred:  “We do post funny political videos but it doesn’t mean that anything else we do is not ’real journalism‘because we have that content as well. Often people will come to see something entertaining on our site, but then they will see more articles and click on some other items, so I don’t think that making news entertaining is a bad thing.”

All panellists agreed that the importance of basic journalistic skills should be maintained in the online world.

“We still expect reporters to use good judgement when tweeting and not overstep publication bans and to spell things correctly,” said Vey. “The online world is a changing field right now and I think we’re still waiting to see how it evolves with all these changing platforms and which ones provide value and which ones are just trends”

The three day conference which ran from November 7 to November 10, 2011, was hosted by the University of Toronto and was the centrepiece of a year-long celebration in honour of the centenary of Marshall McLuhan’s birth (1911-1980).

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