Thursday, January 14, 2010

Today's Editorial Malpractice at The Tennessean

Posted By on Thu, Jan 14, 2010 at 9:00 AM

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Greg Adkins and Tom Lee have a legitimate point to make about convention center discourse in their Tennessean op-ed today. They bemoan anonymous online comment threads where "Internet mud-peddlers, cloaked like Klingon birds of prey, have slandered the character of their opponents." They observe that press outlets (including us, presumably) enable this behavior "by publishing these daily cyberattacks."

The editorial outrage here is not the piece itself, but its headline. The geniuses at The Tennessean ran the op-ed under this five column headline: "Convention center critics hide in anonymity," apparently failing utterly to grasp that Adkins and Lee were calling out authors of online comments on both sides of the issue. The piece, in fact, explicitly highlights twice one particularly ubiquitous pseudonymous commenter who has been a relentless pro-MCC, anti-Gaylord character-assassinating polemicist.

Adkins and Lee do sound an off note when they write that "technology permits the media to know the source of each blog comment." That's true in all cases only if you require and verify site registration. Otherwise, technology gives us only the IP address of an unnamed commenter, which may or may not be linkable to an actual human depending on how and where the person does his or her online thing. Their statement also raises the broader issue of whether anonymous commenting is good for journalism, community discourse, democracy, and all that--but that's a subject for another day.

Update: After an odd back and forth on Twitter with Mike Byrd in which The Tennessean inanely tweeted that the writers of the op-ed are not its employees, the paper's editors finally came to understand that they bear responsibility for the absurd headline that they (and not the piece's authors) wrote. The paper writes on its Twitter stream: "We realize our headline was misleading. It should have said both sides of the debate are cloaked in anonymity. We have changed the headline online and apologize for the error." Nonetheless, they still make the basic online journalism error of not noting the correction in the piece itself.

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