In February, the Michigan news outlet MLive disabled public commenting on articles posted on its websites. Comment sections, meant to use the best of the open internet by promoting civic discussion and dialogue, had been a fixture of the outlet’s online stories since the early 2000s. However, the feature was not utilized nearly as much as MLive intended and had devolved into insults and attacks. Of MLive’s 10 million users, only 5,000 commented per month.
John Hiner, the vice president of content for MLive, published a statement explaining the outlet’s choice to remove comments from its articles: “Conversations routinely go off-topic, the tone can get uncivil or even nasty, and our moderators (and a vendor our company hires) stay busy around the clock policing the conversations, addressing flagged comments and even going so far as to ban some users.”
Such incivility toward the news media is evident not only in public comments but also those made by politicians who berate journalists for their work and attack them personally. At the same time, journalists are also being blamed by society for creating incivility through their reporting.
A public concern
Surveys show the public thinks national news outlets promote incivility.
A study done in 2019 by Weber Shandwick, a global public relations firm, showed that 68 percent of Americans see a major problem with civility in the nation today. The same study showed that 47 percent of Americans blame politicians for increasing incivility in the country, while 40 percent blame the news media.
“I think we’re in a period where we have no idea how to cover the news in a way that promotes civility,” says Kathy Jennings, the managing editor for Second Wave Media, an online news outlet based in Southwest Michigan.
Journalists, on their best days, serve as watchdogs of government, going to public meetings and reviewing public records to ensure elected officials are doing their jobs as outlined by law. At the same time, however, most news organizations are for-profit ventures that need to stay solvent.
Journalism as public service
Yet Mickey Ciokajlo, regional news manager at MLive Media Group, says, “It’s not about clicks. It’s about public service.”
Ciokajlo says that journalism is a public service, especially on a local level, because it is meant to provide accurate and informative news. Local journalism is held to a higher standard in Ciokajlo’s eyes, as he lives and works in the community his staff reports on.
“We’re local people doing local reporting, so we can’t hide from what we print,” Ciokajlo says. “I saw a Kalamazoo judge at Kohl’s a couple weekends ago.”
MLive Media Group’s decision to remove the comment section on stories is not meant to remove community input, says Ciokajlo. He says being held accountable for the news they produce is important, so MLive will still take any phone calls and emails about the reporting done in the stories it publishes, and the comment sections on its social media websites will remain open.
Political debates spark incivility
The anonymity of online communication emboldens people to respond to news in any manner they choose. These comments include attacking a story, a news outlet, a reporter or even the subjects of the story. Political debates are among the more common arguments had on social media platforms.
In a 2016 survey conducted by the Pew Research Center, 53 percent of social media users agreed that online political arguments are less respectful than in-person debates.
Michigan Democratic Sen. Sean McCann, of the 20th District, says he is concerned about increased disrespect in political conversation. “There absolutely has been a shift of increasing incivility, and it wasn’t shifting before four or five years ago,” McCann says.
McCann attributes this state of disrespect and increased arguing to news outlets. He believes that news media are reinforcing uncivil talk among the public, with some highly partisan news outlets projecting their own political ideologies in an extreme manner that serves to promulgate uncivil dialogue.
“Our own personal biases are getting reinforced by the messages around us,” McCann says.
Staying neutral amid negativity
Andy Dominianni, the evening co-anchor for Kalamazoo-based News Channel 3, agrees. “Television news never used to be biased,” he says. “Now most national media outlets are biased one way or another and no longer apologize for it.”
Dominianni says the news media’s job is to let viewers and readers decide their opinions without media manipulation. He doesn’t allow for negative reviews of him to change who he is, he says, even though he receives emails attacking him for the political views the public perceives that he has.
“I want to present myself on TV as middle-of-the-road and neutral,” Dominianni says.
For some local journalists, however, the current state of incivility toward their work can often make them second-guess themselves. Jennings believes that fear of public response may create self-censorship for some journalists.
“They don’t want to think twice about what they’re doing, but there’s gonna be something in the back of your head wondering who will come after you on your story,” Jennings says.
In the ever-changing world of news media, finding a way to slay the monster of incivility is not easy. “It’s not just a media problem,” Jennings says. “It’s a people problem.” She says Second Wave Media is trying to take a step in the right direction by doing solutions journalism.
“Solutions journalism looks at a problem and seeks out those who are working to solve it, which is much more engaging and less despair-inducing,” Jennings says.
Solutions journalism is catching on nationwide. Changing the views and actions of an entire nation is not an easy task, but changing public conversations is a step. Jennings says another step is to remove media “noise,” where articles that spark heated debate tend to cover up other stories, making some topics trend more than others.
“You get one story on national parks being opened up to drilling, but then you get 16 stories about the tweet of the day,” Jennings says.
Unfortunately, in Jennings’ eyes, the stories that trend are ones that promote incivility.
“If we don’t learn how to deal with the noise,” says Jennings, “our function as journalists will cease.”