13 January 2023
Spare a thought for Australia’s editors. Behind the scenes of your letters page are fistfuls of an editor’s hair, plus pints of their sweat and tears, poured out as they scratch dry ground to find suitable contributions.
Imagine words in a classic typewriter text jammed up under their fingernails like dirt under a gardener’s, accrued from constant digging in the dry ground of public contributions.
And they’re doing it all in the readers’ service. They know their readers don’t want to read another ideologically-dicey letter about population control from the man who emails every newsroom in Australia five times a week, or a spaced out thought bubble with no relation to current events.
But, with social media’s inexorable inhalation of our lives – and of the news industry – most public commentary now takes place in the comments section, on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etcetera. If newsroom folk wisdom is to be believed, the past few decades have seen the number of letters written to editors plummet.
In short, the Australian people no longer take up their pens to wade into the fray of public discourse, they take up their keyboards.
So why am I telling you this?
Well there’s two reasons.
My first and main point is that public commentary in traditional media forms has always been curated. The letters to the editor page has never published every contribution a newsroom receives. And that disclaimer that contributions may be edited for length and clarity? It’s often invoked.
Newsrooms are seeking to serve their readers with the most compelling content they can, including letters to the editor. Generally, a compelling letter to an editor will engage directly with news or opinion published recently, challenge or explore an idea about the topic, and contain points of view that are fresh.
There’s also content that most newsrooms would never publish – simply because it doesn’t serve readers, and often risks legal action. This includes racist, sexist or homophobic points of view, attacks on individuals, or content that is just tedious.
But you probably know all this. Most people are very comfortable with the idea that if they submit comment to traditional media forms, it has to meet certain standards.
And this brings me to my second reason for sharing with you the habits of Australian editors in the wild. The movement of public discourse onto social media has made people’s ability to comment a lot more direct and immediate.
In many ways, this is great. Social media provides a platform for some lively conversations, including a diverse range of people – many of whom would never have considered writing a letter to a newspaper.
But, it also carries risk. A keyboard can divorce many of us from empathy, meaning we say things we wouldn’t have otherwise, there’s risks of misinformation, and the speed of conversations means they can become heated in a way that a slower conversation might not. And, if a story attracts a high volume of comments, there’s simply more interactive points which might generate heat.
This speed and volume can make it hard for newsrooms with limited resources to monitor comments.
These are all challenges that have faced us at The Melbourne Anglican, along with small newsrooms around the country. You’ve probably seen some of them play out, whether on our pages or others’.
We believe possible to still have a healthy conversation, where ideas are challenged, debated and grown. But given the difference in platform, how that conversation is curated needs to look a bit different.
With this in mind, we’re introducing social media community standards. You can read the full standards online or below.
In essence, we hope to foster a community in which conversation can flourish in a safe, inclusive and productive way. We hope to make sure there is space for a range of voices and viewpoints, make sure people are safe and respected, and make our comments section a pleasant place to participate.
We’ve always hidden comments. Some because they were potentially defamatory, or legally risky in another way, others because they constituted a personal attack – either on another commenter, or a person in one of our stories.
This will continue, but instead of setting reactive criteria, we have set a positive aim: a healthy conversation. And so, we won’t just be hiding comments that violate a list of standards – we will be requiring comments show respect for others, remain on topic, and be constructive.
We are also asking commenters take responsibility for the quality of the conversation, show kindness, listen to others, be open-minded, assume contributions have been made with the best of intent, show perspective and grace.
Of course, we also have a list of behaviours which we won’t tolerate from social media users. They are behaviours which have the potential to jeopardise a respectful, inclusive, civil conversation, and they are listed in the policy. Engaging in these behaviours may result in a warning, or automatic ban.
We encourage you to screenshot and report any comments which do not adhere to these community standards to firstname.lastname@example.org.
We also know these standards won’t work perfectly, we plan to fine tune and adjust as needed. You can also provide feedback to email@example.com. Or … you could even write me a letter.