February 3, 2013

PUBLIC EDITOR: The Elusive Cornell Sun Trolls

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The ongoing and rapid evolution of newspapers necessarily involves a move to internet co-publication. This move to Internet journalism has allowed news organizations (The Sun included) to receive reader feedback on individual articles and op-eds through the comments section immediately following the articles. A common lament of this new democratization and anonymity of comments sections is that they allow for individuals, known as trolls, to reduce civility and promote a vitriolic, hate and ignorance-filled mudslinging. These seemingly omnipresent creatures appear to inject themselves into any article concerning any hot-button issue they come across. The contributors and journalists of any news organization with a large enough online readership can face cheap, anonymous insults, designed to incite a response, from anyone who happens to come across their article. Dare I say, it contributes little to the informed discussion of the issue the author is writing about. These types of comments appear reassuringly infrequently on The Sun’s website. Certainly, cheap insults and anonymized ignorance sometimes appear, particularly when the subject of the article is some national or international political issue, but, by and large, the comments on The Sun’s website, despite the cloak of anonymity, remain topical, reasoned and informed.

For example, I was impressed by the learned and well-argued disagreement to The Sun’s editorial on divesting from fossil fuels. This type of discourse is a testament to the readership of The Sun, who choose even in the anarchic forum of Internet anonymity to attempt to inform other readers and persuade the author to reach a different conclusion. This reasoned discourse is also a testament to the writers and editors at The Sun. That a commenter responds to The Sun’s articles with reasoned arguments means that The Sun’s argument or reporting is respected enough to be given constructive feedback. It also means the commenter believes the article or opinion persuades and merits legitimate counter argument to persuade otherwise.

To be sure, even many of these constructive comments are raw in a way that only anonymous publication (or a brash personality) allows. There is little sugarcoating in the online comments sections, even among the informed comments following The Sun’s articles. But this type of feedback is positive nonetheless. Raw but well-reasoned and informed criticism is something to celebrate. While we may not want to get coffee with people who address us with the same candor and heated disagreement, in their purpose in presenting divergent, vigorous opinions on reporting and political issues, these comments cut right to the topic and disagreement at hand. The lack of pleasantries and respectfulness may be rude, but so long as the opinion is informed, the comment helps the reader and the writer become better informed.

Comments sections can help the news organization present a diversity of viewpoints to Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes’ marketplace of ideas. Whereas the Troll represents this democratized marketplace at its worst, the informed debate frequently seen following The Sun’s articles represents this new marketplace at its best. While the occasional spite and cheap insult appears unavoidable whenever anyone on the Internet may anonymously opine, The Sun and its readership should be proud of the overall quality of the debate.

Nicholas Kaasik is a second-year law student at Cornell Law School. He assigns and edits submissions for Barely Legal. He may be reached at public-editor@cornellsun.com. The Public Editor column runs monthly on Mondays.

Original Author: Nicholas Kaasik