Poor Sods with a Keyboard

Journalism practices have changed dramatically since the days I worked as a reporter and today any poor sod with a keyboard can wax moronically just by pushing a button marked “send.”

Bile erupted in response to an editorial I wrote for our local paper about Judge Richard J. Leon’s ruling last week that the FDA cannot place bold warning labels and graphic images on cigarette packages.

The judge wrote that such images—already used on packets in more than 40 countries—would harm the tobacco companies’ rights to free speech.

I argued the ruling was absurd on several levels, pointing out that the framers of the Bill of Rights sought to protect individual speech, not commercial speech, and that tobacco companies have gone to extraordinary lengths to persuade publics to adopt smoking habits.

Responders to the editorial—which had a teaser in the print edition and full piece online—ranted. Here’s one example: “educated idiots and anti-smoking zealots will definitely die like everyone else and that their corpses will rot and stink like everyone else’s. There is no escape from death even for Liberal morons.”


My family and friends wanted to make sure that I was alright as insults were hurled but I figured that the online responses engendered anger from folks eager to bluster. I can’t take it personally.

My former editor—back at the newspaper decades ago—used to say that the responses (framed as Letters to the Editor) were typically from folks at the “eager ends” of the scale: those with intractable positions on each side of the spectrum.

My editor would usually pick the most extreme letters, but not all letters, in an attempt to provide balance.

Today the online writers aren’t selected or screened, and rarely edited (the newspaper will remove comments that use expletives). Insults are therefore welcomed. Respondents pretty much have free rein when it comes to online comments that respond to the newspaper stories, blogs and editorials.

When you think about it, that’s what has shifted journalism’s influence so dramatically: any poor sod with a keyboard can unleash his or her rants online. Sometime the results are heart-warming, such as Susan Boyle’s rise to fame as a result of an overactive online fan-base.

But the downside is that false information can spread like wildlife and can actually harm people. Websites caution parents about vaccinating their children in the wake of rumors that immunizations lead to autism, despite the lack of evidence to support the claim.

As a result some children are now at risk for measles, whopping cough, polio and other preventable childhood diseases.

Sometimes technology outstrips our ethics, and just because we can do something doesn’t mean we should. Online access enables folks to post before they think. That’s troubling.


About Cynthia Coleman Emery

Professor and researcher at Portland State University who studies science communication, particularly issues that impact American Indians. Dr. Coleman is an enrolled citizen of the Osage Nation.
This entry was posted in ethics, framing, health, journalism, risk, science communication and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

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