Our police reporter, Matt Lakin, received this note from a reader after his initial report about the shooting of a policeman and the detention of eight black males as suspects.
“I have just read your news story entitled “Search ongoing for suspects in shooting” in the May 21. 2008, News Sentinel. While I am very saddened at the horrific news of this very fine officer being shot, I want you to know that I am deeply offended by your first sentence in the first paragraph, “A routine burglar alarm call Tuesday ended with a veteran Knoxville police officer being shot for the second time in his career, eight black men being taken into custody and a community being sent into lockdown.”
“What on earth does the fact that the eight men are African American have anything to do with this crime? What does their race have to do with anything? If the eight men had been white, would you have mentioned their genetic heritage? I think not. I pray you aren’t deliberately trying to incite racial strife into this already tragic event. Surely, I am not the only subscriber to the News Sentinel you have offended by mentioning the race of these eight men. You and our society should be way beyond identifying and labeling people by their races.”
The issue of identifying criminal suspects — or anyone for that matter — by race is one we take quite seriously. Our rule is to avoid racial or ethnic descriptors unless they are germane to the story. The issue often arises when police are looking for a suspect and they issue a description that includes race. Naturally we want to help police track down suspects. But we also want to avoid vague, broad-brush labeling. We leave race out unless the description is detailed enough to offer some real hope of identifying an individual suspect.
In the case of the police shooting, we stuck with that policy, not including race in the description of the suspects in our early online reports. But by the time we were writing for print, police had eight black men in custody. The possibility of dragnet targeting black men became a dimension of the story we felt we had to report,. which we did along with comment from the NAACP.
Jim Roberts, digital news editor at The New York Times, makes a case for a gradual shift from print to online emphasis. The drivers he cites are nearly identical to what we have seen at the News Sentinel: creation of a continuous news desk, experimentation with new tools, demonstration of the power of online storytelling and reliance on the staff’s intelligence and competitive spirit.
He talks about “planting” multimedia editors in the various news desks. We haven’t done that yet. Our online news department has operated as a separate, and highly creative, unit. But we are looking at a new structure that might “embed” some online editors amongst the editors who still are largely focused on the print product.
As a lover of free speech, I take great delight at the explosion of comments being posted at the end of news stories on knoxnews.com. But as one who despises hate speech, demagoguery and verbal abuse, I cringe at much of what we allow, and even facilitate, on our web site.
Here’s a column I’ve written for Sunday’s paper mulling the dilemma, which is perplexing the news industry and is sure to be a topic of the Scripps editors meeting next week:
If you ask people what they think, be careful. They might tell you.
About this time last year, we moved knoxnews.com to a platform that, among other things, allowed users to post comments at the end of each story.
It didn’t take long to realize we’d created a free-speech monster.
Last month, knoxnews.com visitors posted more than 25,000 comments. We soon will be averaging more than 1,000 comments a day.
Compare that to the handful of letters to the editor we publish each day, and it is clear we have entered a new world of interactivity.
The problem is keeping the civic dialog civil.
Like other newspapers, we hold letters to the editor to high standards. They must be well written, to the point, signed and verified.
Such niceties are foreign to the online world. We require users to register before they can post comments. But verification is impractical, if not impossible.
So we’ve opted for an open forum where “Knoxguy,” “Justicegirl,” “Sheesh” and “Kelman81” can engage in free-wheeling dialog. Sometimes, though, the wheel can spin out of control.
It’s hard to predict when discussion will turn from rich to raunchy.
A recent story about a complaint of racism at Rockwood High School attracted 102 comments, many obviously from students. Raw emotions were apparent. But the discussion remained remarkably civil and on-point. The difficult issue of race saw a thorough, and perhaps even productive, exchange of views.
On the other hand, a story about Sen. Tim Burchett’s engagement quickly became so insulting and obscene we had to — for the first time ever — cut off comments entirely.
Users are warned before they comment that they are agreeing not to post anything that is “off topic, defamatory, obscene, abusive, threatening or an invasion of privacy.”
We don’t screen comments beforehand, though. Instead, we rely on readers to help. Each comment appears beside a button that says “Suggest removal.” Clicking that sends an e-mail to one of our Web producers, who reviews the comment and decides whether to delete it.
Last month, 313 comments were removed as inappropriate.
As believers in free speech, we grant users considerable latitude, especially when they are commenting on public officials or public affairs. Free speech ain’t necessarily pretty.
The vigorous debates have spawned some concrete results. The movement to add a recall provision to the County Charter had roots in the comments that followed stories about Knox County government.
But a group with the Freedom Forum that is looking for ways to bring more civility to public discourse has identified online comments as a factor contributing to incivility.
Anonymity, they fear, breeds contempt. Some would like newspapers to extend their usual standards of verification and attribution to the Web.
But the Web plays by its own rules. Forcing identification and verification would merely drive the nameless but free-flowing discourse to blogs and forums away from mainstream media sites, and newspapers would become less relevant to the public dialog.
We are looking for ways to raise the level of civility in the discussions on our Web sites by banning more abusers, actively redirecting unhealthy strings or even letting users assign “karma ratings” to comment-writers and using those ratings to determine whose posts are displayed most prominently.
If you like uninhibited free speech, I invite you do join the cacophony. But if noise annoys you, stay away. You’ll just get a headache.
Feedback has been fairly positive after our first day of publishing 11-inch-wide pages. Only area of concern so far has been the comics pages, which we had to squeeze. Readability remains an issue we’ll be monitoring.
One question we’re wrestling with is whether to take the B-section up to 10 pages on a regular basis. We have plans for expanding our regional coverage in the next month or so, and the section will almost surely have to increase in size when we do that. But right now, a 10-page section creates more space than we can easily fill day in and day out, while an eight-page section is pretty snug.
Observant folks in Knoxville have already caught a glimpse of the future of the News Sentinel.
Next Monday, we begin printing a paper with pages that are about an inch and a half more narrow. That means each page will be about 11 inches wide. But they still will be 21 inches deep.
If you think that may feel a bit odd, you can get a preview by looking at some of the other publications we print that have already converted to the new width: The Oak Ridger or the Shopper News, for instance.
Tabloid publications, such as Metro Pulse or the News Sentinel’s Preview section, will be shorter, instead of narrower, because they are produced sideways on the same presses.
The purpose of the change is to save newsprint, the price of which has shot up since last year’s merger of Abitibi and Bowater, two of North America’s biggest newsprint manufacturers. The News Sentinel gets its paper from the Bowater mill at Calhoun, Tenn., between Knoxville and Chattanooga.
The smaller pages mean we will probably get only about four stories on an average front page, instead of five, as we usually do now. The change will have a similar impact on other pages, too. Some stories definitely will be shorter. However, we are adding pages to the paper to maintain our “newshole,” or the space allocated to editorial content. The savings in newsprint will come from the narrowing of photos, ads and other graphic elements.
Papers all over the country are going to the narrower width, which rapidly is becoming an industry standard and probably won’t seem at all odd in a few weeks, after we’ve gotten used to the change.