Beware the comments section.
It’s a nasty, nasty place where productive discussions turn vile, where attacks are not based on arguments but the people who produce them.
Four years of publishing articles and I’ve only had one foray into the pseudo-cyber bullying the comments section breeds. It was the December of my freshman year, and I wrote a column on Title IX compliance in Ivy League athletics.
The draft of the story I turned in explained how Penn dealt with Title IX but did little to suggest alternative solutions to cutting athletes from non-marquee sports and inflating female rosters. The senior sports editor suggested we add a line about cutting sprint football, calling it a “welcome novelty sport.” His words, not mine. His words, put under my byline. I was intimidated by my editor, so I didn’t protest the addition. When the article was published, I immediately wished I had stood up for myself in the newsroom.
What ensued were some of the worst days I’ve ever had at Penn — days that made me question whether I wanted to be a journalist.
In the comments section, someone called my article “piss poor journalism” because they did not agree with my opinion. Another wrote, “awfully said and humorous to read.” Several members of the sprint football team sent me strongly worded emails. I responded with profuse apologies and invitations to meet in person to discuss their concerns further. None took me up on the offer.
Other commenters started a debate comparing football to swimming, discussing injury risk, athlete academic standards and entertainment value. Not once in my article did I mention any of those points, which goes to show that what people glean from an article is not always the writer’s intended message. Perhaps that was a sign that my argument was not clear enough.
I thought the storm had blown over, but then three days later I received a Facebook message from the captain of the sprint football team. His issue was with that one sentence my editor added — and rightly so. He wrote that my team was of no importance to the University, discredited my research, called my article “extremely uncalled for” and ended it with a terse “Happy Holidays!”
Happy Holidays? Are you kidding me?
Adding one insincere nicety to the end of a rant doesn’t neutralize the damage done by being rude. I didn’t care that he disagreed with me or that he missed the main point of my article. I cared that he couldn’t find a civil way to express his disagreement — one that would prompt a productive discussion about the issue at hand rather than attack who I was as a person.
I read his message after spending two days in Van Pelt cramming for my first college final and avoiding the DP website. I was so emotionally drained that I couldn’t form a coherent response. So I cried.
When I related the sequence of events to my high school friend, she tried to cheer me up by saying “haters make you famous.” I wasn’t convinced that a few disgruntled Penn athletes lent me any fame or my journalistic craft any validity.
My DP experience is only a sliver of what professional journalists face. Last summer while covering a Phillies game for the Philadelphia Inquirer, a female beat writer from Wilmington, Del., told me stories of her Twitter trolls who told her to “go back to the kitchen” whenever they disagreed with her baseball assessments. She eventually grew a thicker skin and began confronting them directly, replying “you wouldn’t want that because I’m a terrible cook.” That usually shut them up.
I won’t get into the issues of sexism inherent in both that initial tweet and the sports journalism world. That’s another column entirely. But the anecdote is indicative of the problems with the comments section and other online forums.
Hiding behind a screen removes the element of humanity from both the person posting the response and the journalist who penned the article. That anonymity emboldens readers to the point that they feel comfortable writing things that they might not ever say in person. Those things they write are in cyberspace forever, mind you.
Now that three years have passed, I can laugh about the whole experience. I even became friends with one of the sprint football players that wrote me an email.
But if you take anything away from this column, I hope that you think about what you type before you post. If you have nothing nice to contribute, don’t leave it on some anonymous message board where neither you nor I can adequately explain our reasoning.
Just avoid the virtual mudslinging and say it to my face.
Please note All comments are eligible for publication in The Daily Pennsylvanian.