When I arrived here in 2007, among the many criticisms I heard about The Vindicator was our Vindy.com message board and what a travesty it was for the Valley.
The criticism was certainly about the anonymity of the posters. But people were equally outraged at the audacity of the comments and demanded that we police such errors and absurdities in that forum.
I was not a fan of our message board then, nor am I today as I write this.
Today, the volume of complaints is not nearly what it was back then.
But wow, how I long for those days.
Though there is less message-board activity at Vindy.com, the Internet seems to be a worse place in terms of errors and absurdities.
Social media — Facebook, Twitter and the like — can fuel an opportunity for our speech to have a reach that is unprecedented. And I know we’re not always better for it.
I’ll admit at this point (because many of you are likely set to point back at me) that we, as traditional, old-school gatekeepers of freedom of speech, are far from perfect. We — being journalists in print or broadcast — experience both failures and successes in what we say.
But traditional media have a process, filter and conscience that — over the course of a week, a year or a career — has served our democracy fairly well for a few hundred years.
(But again, we are not perfect.)
Yet I’m dismayed when I get to some social-media forums where process, filter and conscience come down to “If I can type it, I should!” Some people and forums have routinely torched various Valley people and companies, including us, for a while now.
I am stunned that many people do so with their names attached. Though that’s far better than the anonymous rants by cellar dwellers, I think it’s more unnerving. I don’t necessarily want to see you naked, nor do I want to always know what you’re thinking.
Two people this week left me shaking my head. Both were commenting on the Youngstown State University president situation.
First thing to understand about this event is that there are no fewer than 20 full-time media groups trying to cover this story. In addition to the seven just in our city alone, the outlets also are based in Akron, Cleveland, Columbus, Chicago and southern Illinois. This is in addition to eager citizens Googling all that they can on Randy Dunn, Jim Tressel, Southern Illinois University, YSU, University of Akron and more.
All media are feeding off one another once one gets a fresh tidbit. Chances are, you are not following all 20. However, that’s part of our job. So we have a unique idea of who reported what and when.
The two people were ostensibly celebrating news generated by the student newspapers at YSU and Southern Illinois University. But both felt the need to take a shot at us and other local media, as well. “Why did a student newspaper have this, and not the professionals” was their theme.
Shots happen. But what stunned me was when I tried to teach and explain as I just did above, both offered a rather firm “screw you.”
One was a university worker, and the other was an esteemed legal mind.
It’s worth noting here that the entire “Randy Dunn is going to SIU” saga was broken by the Daily Egyptian, the student newspaper in Carbondale, Ill. This is important because you have to celebrate local journalism wherever you encounter it. And in celebrating it, perhaps you can even encourage and support it.
Neither of the two highly educated folks I engaged this week found any value in calling the newsroom or sending an email to us saying “Hey, did you know ...”
We’re glad that many do — offering to contribute instead of kick. Both require the same amount of effort.
When I pointed out to the YSU staffer that the other media are to be congratulated, I added that in the meantime, YSU was referenced 18 times in The Vindicator over last weekend for various academic and athletic feats.
The reply was: Well of course that’s so, a major YSU donor also controls The Vindicator.
Award points there for imagination and absurdity, but not for accuracy.
The lawyer called me thin-skinned and said he was only trying to compliment the student paper for their work.
I asked him to revisit his part about “why doesn’t The Vindicator or other local media have this?”
Others reading today will likely join the thin-skinned talk, and that’s fine. But in all honesty, we probably deal with more complaints in our first hour than most businesses do in a week, and it’s as much for what we do right as for what we do wrong.
The key point I’d ask you to ponder is, the art of “right” when speaking or posting.
Early in my career, I learned appreciation for this principle:
You have the right to say many things. But do you have the capacity to say what’s right, and, at the right time?
It’s kind of the old free-speech test of yelling “fire” in a crowded movie theater.
I’ve seen many in my profession abuse that principle.
I’ve seen many more in the community do such, and now you can see it every day in various social- media forums.
Heck, you can see it virtually every minute.
Twenty years ago, bad speech stayed at the bar with the drunk guy or at the family table with the crazy aunt.
Now, every citizen is blessed with a reach and an ability they’ve never had before. It’s a reach even our forefathers could never conceive as they placed the final period mark on their ambitious First Amendment idea.
Some of our greatest societies collapsed due to their excess.
I sure hope our ability to say more than ever before doesn’t do the same for us.
Todd Franko is editor of The Vindicator. He likes emails about stories and our newspaper. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. He blogs, too, on vindy.com. Tweet him, too, at @tfranko.