Wick Communications

More thoughts on civility

In journalism on October 25, 2012 at 2:24 pm

This week, Jeff Zeringue of the Daily Iberian contacted me for my thoughts on over-the-top posts on the newspaper’s Facebook page. While I don’t think there is any legal liability for comments on the site, we completely agreed that the newspaper should foster civil discourse wherever possible and that such posts should be removed, if possible.

It got me thinking about digital bazaar in which we ply our trade. Is there anything we can do to keep people from calling the president a monkey, disparaging his challenger on the basis of his religion and all the rest of the junk that can be seen on the Web every darn day of the year?

Well, an organization called the Association of Opinion Journalists has been working on it. The group has talked of producing a handbook on effective argumentation that would “draw on the rules of rhetoric and journalistic attribution,” according to Frank Partsch, who has been the editorial page editor for the terrific Omaha World-Herald for a quarter of a century. The group may also ask members to host workshops on the subject in individual communities.

Partsch ends his piece on the association website this way: …

Let it be emphasized once more.  We must recognize that part of the material labeled uncivil in the current political climate might very well fall within the robust give-and-take that occurs within the time-hallowed traditions of free speech.  The Civility Project does not seek to redefine political campaigning or reinvent the public-policy conversation.  Rather, we focus on the margins where unscrupulous individuals attempt to deceive the public or destroy the opposition with lies, illogic and character assassination.  We aim to be persuasive, no matter how great the distance between points of view, in promoting respect, not only for the adversary but also for the audience and for the democratic institutions whose wellbeing depends so much on the wisdom of an informed electorate.

On that we can all agree. Getting to a place where we see our ideological opponents as honorable people with different opinions instead of morally flawed beings won’t be easy. The mean-spirited political campaigning and punditry we see on cable television exist because they work. They embolden the base and drive ratings.

To be honest, I don’t know where the Civility Project is on its efforts. But there may be things you can do in your own community, beyond simply deleting comments. What if you hosted a talk on civil discourse? You could bring in a debate coach who could speak about effective ways to win minds. Maybe you could empower a panel in your community to talk about these things.

Do you have ideas? I’d love to hear them.

Clay

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