Readers today do more than speak. They tweet. They post. They share. They comment. They comment on comments. They argue. A lot. AND SOMETIMES THEY GET REALLY MAD.
Of course, these readers’ fingers are rarely smudged with newsprint. Though we consume media at prodigious rates, newspaper readership is declining. And most people who do read newspapers do so digitally. A 2012 Pew Research poll found that only 23% of Americans had read a print newspaper the previous day – a drop of 18% over a decade.
This shift in journalism consumption patterns has opened the floodgates for readers to weigh in on the news of the day. Their comments are often insightful and informed and can serve to move the conversation forward, making the practice of journalism an interactive exercise of civil dialogue.
But readers also speak in terms that are crude, hateful, and vitriolic, and many commentators blame the anonymity of the Internet. A recent study conducted by Arthur Santana of the University of Houston found that 53.3 percent of anonymous comments were offensive (vulgar, racist, profane, or hateful) compared to 28.7 percent of non-anonymous comments. Indeed, Leonard Pitts, columnist for the Miami Herald, believes that anonymous comment streams are “havens for a level of crudity, bigotry, meanness and plain nastiness that shocks the tattered remnants of our propriety.”
It makes one yearn for the good ol’ days, when letters were thoughtfully written, carefully typed, folded into a business size envelope, affixed with a stamp, and mailed off to the offices of the local newspapers. Surely civil dialogue reigned in those days, right?
I know I’m dealing with an incredibly small sample size here, but I had a look at the papers of the women’s pages editors I’m studying to see what I could find in terms of correspondence. My mother saved a number of letters from readers, and most of them were very complimentary and constructive. Of course, she might have only saved the good ones. There was one reader’s comment that Mom used as fodder for a subsequent column, though. That reader complained about a dearth of advice for zucchini and asked “why don’t you print more recipes instead of using what that woman writes about her family all the time?”
It was in the papers of Marie Anderson, women’s editor for many years at the Miami Herald, that I found a treasure trove of letters from readers – along with Marie’s responses. One reader asks about why Marie’s column was edged in black in the newspaper and Marie wrote back with a fascinating lesson in journalism page composition. She also responded to complaints about unequal representation of women in news stories (“I do keep plugging away at this business of trying to become accepted as a person, not a sex, and I think eventually there will be changes. It is reassuring to have your support.”) and to specific concerns about the content of her columns.
So one might think that the paper-and-ink era was free of the nastiness that infects our virtual comment sections. But one would be wrong.
After publishing a small item in her column about a study documenting the generosity of liberals, Marie received a letter from Mr. T. L. Burns of Upper Key Largo:
Who but “liberals” have resorted to force to achieve race mixing, have crushed freedom of choice in schools and housing, have turned the IRS into an enforcing agency? Who but “liberals” have turned the colleges into battle grounds in the name of Freedom of Speech (for the radical left only), have consistently defended black rapists and murderers while showing supreme indifference to the victims? Who but the “liberal” World Council of Churches would send financial aid to the bestial and bloody handed black guerillas in Africa? “Liberals” are steadily undermining the peoples’ resolve, morale and the will to defend themselves; and subverting our established institutions in the name of social “progress” and international brotherly love. “Liberals”! They are tearing America apart.
Mr. T. L. Burns of Upper Key Largo would have fit in well in the comment sections of many contemporary news sites. If only he’d used the caps lock key on his manual typewriter.
I was not entirely surprised to see this example of anger in 1970 journalism. What did surprise me, though, was the equanimity and wit displayed in Marie Anderson’s neatly typed response (saved through the wonders of carbon paper and now ensconced in her archives):
Goodness. I didn’t realize we were all that bad.
I already have said in print all I can say in my own defense. At least Mr. Meyer’s story substantiates that I have a normal reaction, which reminds me of a friend of my father’s years ago who spent a while in Chattahoochee. In the midst of a heated barbershop argument one day he blurted, “Well, at least I have papers to prove I’m not crazy which is more than you have.” I hasten to add, no personal inference is intended.
Journalism is all about a healthy exchange of ideas. Our virtual world – even in its anonymous form – can undoubtedly enhance that exchange. But I wonder if we might be better served if instead of the minimal keystrokes it takes to share, tweet, or dash off an angry email, we had to take the time to pick up a pen or insert paper into the roller of a manual typewriter. Perhaps we’d see a bit less vitriol and a bit more civility and clever repartee.
Thanks to the Women in Journalism Collection at the State Historical Society of Missouri and to the Washington Press Club Oral History Project – these archives of primary source material are invaluable.