Our discussion of communication ethics to this point has focused on the personal, and even private, aspects of communicative action. Now that we’ve spent some time reflecting on our own values and narrative, it’s time to put our self-awareness to good use and to examine public discourse ethics. Public discourse involves “conversation about ideas in civic/community contexts marked by diversity of perspectives requiring thoughtful public engagement” (Arnett, Harden Fritz, & Bell, 2009, p. 100). Public discourse ethics require that we focus, not on our own opinions, but on allowing “public space for conversation… the place where one takes a grounded stance, engages the grounded stances of others, and makes a decision” (Arnett et al., 2009, p. 103). This public arena is a “’sacred space’—a space to be protected, a space that is honored and valued” a space for a “diversity of ideas and persons” (Arnett et al., 2009, p. 109). We must start with self-reflection to clearly know our own “grounded stance,” then be open to change that grounded stance if we find that “previous decisions that were once valid no longer work” (Arnett et al., 2009, p. 104). While it is fine to enter public discourse with a strong opinion on a matter, it is a communication ethics violation to engage that discourse with “undue confidence and unsubstantiated opinion… communicative action based on ideological certainty that seeks no new knowledge, just the opportunity to tell” (Arnett et al., 2009, p. 103).
A public space where we often find “undue confidence and unsubstantiated opinion” is in the comment section of blogs and news articles. These platforms present the possibility for public discourse, where diverse people with diverse ideas engage the issues of the day. However, a look at the comment of a “breaking news” event on CNN.com reveals that this public arena is filled with communication ethics violations.
On April 2, 2014, a soldier stationed at the US Army’s Fort Hood military base went on a shooting spree that resulted in three dead and 13 wounded. This was the second shooting rampage on the base in a five year period. The article I have chosen to review was posted two days later, on April 4, 2014, and was a short article with details on those killed in the shooting. The article had been online for 11 hours, and posting to the comments continued during the time I was reading. By 11:30 pm on April 4, there were over 1940 comments, with the number ticking up every few minutes. [By Saturday, April 5, at 3pm EDT, there were 3288 comments).
I reviewed the comments for indications of diversity in race, gender, background, nationality, thought, and experience. Though CNN.com is an international platform, most of the commenters were from the United States. Interestingly, those who were not from the US often identified themselves as such. It was difficult to assess the diversity of age, race, and gender from the screen names and avatars. Most posters used non-gender identifiable screen names and avatars (Deep Fired, Ping Ping, etc.). My guess from the tone of the posts is that a majority of these commenters were male, but that’s speculative at best. At least one of those posting identified himself as being “older” (“An old soldier”).
As for diversity of thought, as expected, the primary debate involved gun control and gun rights. A corollary to this main argument involved gun violence and gun deaths in the United States versus other countries (including war zones) and in historical terms. A common, but much less frequent theme of commenters was a simple statement of condolences to the families of those who died. An interesting, and to me, diverse, theme that developed in the hour I spent reviewing the posts was that of mental health care. In the primary debates related to gun issues, there was a lot of “telling” with very little openness to being open to change. In fact, there was very little reasoned discourse at all, just “gun nuts” and “liberals” attacking one another for pages and pages as “trolls.”
However, the greatest demonstration of “undue confidence and unsubstantiated opinion” involved people posting comments that were attacking, mean-spirited, or just off-topic. It made the forum seem like a shouting match rather than a place for thoughtful engagement.
If the public arena is “sacred space,” these people seemed intent on defiling it.
As a prompt for this discussion, we were asked if the use of informed moderators could enhance the dialogue that could take place in public comment sites, or if, in contrast, such moderation might silence important voices. I feel very strongly that a little informed moderation could go a long way in protecting and promoting a diversity of voices in this public arena. I consume a lot of news, and I enjoy engaging discussion and debate on current events; however, I rarely comment on articles in the public comment section. I find that the trolls ruin the discourse, and I feel it is a waste of time to even read the comments. I have, however, participated in moderated forums, and I’ve found these to be more useful and enjoyable. These forums were “gently” moderated, with explicitly stated rules for engagement. For a space to be “sacred” it must feel safe. Unmoderated forums feel neither sacred nor safe. By creating a few guidelines on decorum and civil engagement, and enforcing those guidelines by blocking repeat offenders, these forums allowed commenters to share ideas without fear of attack.
The beginning of communication ethics is self-awareness. From there our responsibility is “to listen to what is before us”, to “attend the historical moment,” and “to negotiate new possibilities” (Arnett et al., 2009, p. 95). This doesn’t mean that we don’t have strong opinions, and it doesn’t mean that we have to agree with “the Other.” It does mean, however, that we “discern, decide with some questioning, and change our minds when necessary” (Arnett et al., 2009, p. 104). Digital technology gives us access to the public arena from the privacy of our homes or smartphones. Commenting platforms could be a great way to engage diverse ideas and civic discourse; however, most of the discussions devolve into the basest of interactions. Perhaps it is time to consider a different approach to facilitating ethical public discourse on these platforms.
Question: Do you participate in comment sections on news articles? Do you read the comments? How do you think the experience of this public arena could be improved?
Arnett, R.C., Harden Fritz, J.M., & Bell, L.M. (2009). Communication Ethics Literacy: Dialogue and Difference. Los Angeles, California: SAGE Publications, Inc.
Ellis, R. (2014, April 4). Three soldiers slain at Fort Hood identified. CNN.com. Retrieved from http://www.cnn.com/2014/04/04/us/fort-hood-victims/index.html?hpt=hp_t1