Free press vs. free speech? The rhetoric of “civility” in regard to anonymous online comments

From Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly

Audience-feedback forums have been fixtures of the U.S. news media for centuries, but today’s  online comment forums on news media websites have greatly expanded the dynamism of the marketplace of ideas. With online forums, the gatekeeping has largely disappeared—anybody can post a comment in any manner and on any topic, often without any prescreening by editors. This study explores the issue of “civility” in anonymous comments posted to news media websites, the analysis suggests that journalists and audiences have very different conceptualizations about “civility” and the role of anonymity in civil discourse. Findings indicate that journalists may prefer quality over quantity, but many of those who use such forums seem willing to tolerate substandard writing and vitriol if it encourages broader public participation. At this time, the oft-repeated suggestion that anonymity is directly responsible for incivility is an unsubstantiated and dubious claim of causation.  Much more research of the issue is needed to see whether there are actual correlations.

 

 

Abstract

This study explores the issue of “civility” in anonymous comments posted to news media websites. A textual analysis of journalistic essays about the issue and more than 900 audience-member responses to those essays suggests a disconnect between professional journalists and most forum participants over the purpose of such “virtual village squares,” particularly with regard to the role of anonymity. Using the theoretical framework of “concordance,” the analysis suggests that journalists and audiences have very different conceptualizations about “civility” and the role of anonymity in civil discourse.

 

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Article details
Bill Reader (2012). Free Press vs. Free Speech? The Rhetoric of “Civility” in Regard to Anonymous Online Comments Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly : 10.1177/1077699012447923

     
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