Friday, September 23, 2011
All the News That's Unfit to Print
This just in from rural America: It’s a scary place, and your character can randomly be assassinated by anyone on the internet. The Times reported this week that the sort of gossip that used to be transmitted over a cup of coffee or a back fence is now going online, and if you’re a victim of it, there’s not much you can do.
Take the case of Jennifer in Missouri. According to the Times story, she was named in an anonymous post on a social website called Topix as “a methed-out, doped-out whore with AIDS.” Her husband said that wasn’t true, but the posting caused her to be ostracized in her small town. She and her husband are planning to move.
Topix, run from Palo Alto, is the new big thing in small-town America, and one of the things it’s proving is that those towns ain’t Mayberry. There are a certain number of news-related posts, but much of the content consists of anonymous gossip posts. Under federal law, Topix is not liable for those posts, damaging as they are, and trying to get at the source can be a long and costly process.
Back in the day that type of over-the-fence gossip could often be traced back to the source and the source considered. The anonymity of the internet makes even that small degree of accountability all but impossible. Evaluating the validity of an anonymous post has become one of the toughest issues in the online world.
The first time I looked at Yelp, all I could think of was that I was glad I don’t own a restaurant. It’s bad enough that you can be torched by someone who had an atypical bad experience, but the problem goes beyond that. An ex-spouse or lover, a business rival, or just someone deranged could go to the site and report seeing rats scurrying across the floor at your place.
Aside from actual malice, the reviews are problematic when you don’t know a reviewer. If someone writes a glowing or negative review of a restaurant, the person reading it has no way of knowing what that person’s standards are or even what the circumstances of the occasion were. Did subsequent success with romance inflate the appraisal of the meal, or vice versa?
For much the same reasons, I don’t give much weight to the comments posted anonymously on news stories at a newspaper web site. With no accountability, the extreme views rise to the surface, the same people post over and over, and most of it doesn’t mean anything.
By way of contrast, when I edited a daily newspaper, I was hyper-vigilant about the content of letters to the editor. I would send them back if they were unsigned, and though we didn’t publish the writer’s address, we insisted it be provided to us to verify identify. Furthermore, I edited the letters carefully, deleting material that could be libelous and taking out “factual” assertions that seemed questionable and couldn’t be verified.
Unlike the social websites, newspapers were responsible for the content of what they printed, even if submitted by someone else. New York Times v. Sullivan, the case that established much of current libel law, revolved around a paid advocacy ad the Times had run and subsequently had to defend.
Seeing that story about the rural social websites caused me to remember what my first managing editor once told me. “If we only printed the news people wanted us to print,” he said, “we wouldn’t have a very interesting newspaper.” The internet certainly has added a new dimension to “interesting.”