Congratulations to Mountain Xpress on its 15th anniversary. As an early volunteer for its predecessor, Green Line, I am grateful for Jeff Fobes' vision and leadership — and for the support that Julian Price provided when this alternative weekly was getting off the ground.
Jeff's vision of "encouraging folks to get involved locally, where they can have both the greatest impact and the best chance to be heard, in the name of creating a healthier, smarter community" has never been more timely, especially when so many corporate owners believe that newspapers exist only to attract the right kind of readers for advertisers.
As advertising-supported journalism is collapsing, we must be vigilant to ensure the continued success of Mountain Xpress. It is in this spirit that I share concerns about our newsweekly's coverage of two local, community-media organizations: URTV and the Mountain Area Information Network and its radio station, WPVM.
In "creating a healthier, smarter community," journalism sheds light on critical community issues and thereby empowers citizens to engage these issues with clarity and understanding, civil discourse and debate. Good journalism — as envisioned by Xpress — is essential for creating and maintaining a vibrant and hospitable public sphere, where diverse voices are heard, robust debate is possible, and consensus-building is the goal. These conditions are essential for "creating a healthier, smarter community."
Unfortunately, the Xpress coverage of the URTV and MAIN/WPVM conflicts failed this test. Instead, the coverage created confusion and deepened divisions, not only in these organizations, but in the community as a whole. The confusion and division continue to this day. It's hard to recall any Xpress coverage that so left readers scratching their heads and reading between the lines to find the reality behind the reporting.
Like most community-media organizations that depend on volunteers, URTV and MAIN/WPVM have their share of internal conflict. Likewise, the Xpress coverage started with internal personnel matters that legally limit what management can say publicly. (Ironically, Xpress cited these limits in 2007 when it kept mum about firing a high-profile reporter. An editorial signed by Jeff Fobes and Jon Elliston told readers who questioned the action: "You don't have enough facts to adequately assess the basis for Xpress management's decision … these are personnel matters, and discretion must be our central guiding principle.")
Also critical was the episodic nature of the coverage. Both stories unfolded like serial drama, with each new installment amplifying claims of misconduct.
One of the most disheartening elements were the anonymous claims and personal attacks that began appearing in the Xpress online forums after each new story. With no fact-checking or accountability, the hearsay, rumor and innuendo created clouds of suspicion over both organizations — eventually eliciting online attacks from relative strangers with no firsthand knowledge of the conflicts. These online attacks produced a "pack mentality" that heaped scorn on any voice asking readers to keep an open mind, or daring to speak in support of management.
Social scientists call this "group polarization." In his new book, Going to Extremes: How Like Minds Unite and Divide (Oxford University Press, 2009), Cass Sunstein writes: "Group polarization often occurs because people are telling one another what they know, and what they know is skewed in a predictable direction." This dynamic, says Sunstein, is especially pronounced in groups of like-minded people, which "can operate as polarization machines because they help confirm and thus amplify people's antecedent views." In this process, more confident and authoritative voices pull more cautious and moderate voices to their viewpoint. As voices of caution and moderation grow silent, the voices of certainty and authority grow stronger, pulling the group to more extreme positions.
Cyberspace raises the ante on group polarization by introducing "disinhibition" effects, whereby people say things online that they would never say to someone's face. While this loss of social inhibition online can even occur when people use their real identities, with anonymity all bets are off. In The Psychology of Cyberspace (available online), John Suler describes the intoxicating power of online anonymity: "When people have the opportunity to separate their actions from their real world and identity, whatever they say or do can't be directly linked to the rest of their lives. They don't have to own their behavior by acknowledging it within the full context of who they 'really' are. When acting out hostile feelings, the person doesn't have to take responsibility for those actions. In fact, people might even convince themselves that those behaviors 'aren't me at all.' In psychology this is called dissociation."
Xpress' coverage of URTV and MAIN/WPVM was a perfect storm of journalism gone astray: Coverage starts with internal personnel matters about which management can say little; as new installments are written, claims of misconduct grow; these claims are amplified online where anonymity is not balanced by fact-checking and accountability.
Readers are either swept along in group polarization, or left on the sidelines scratching their heads in confusion and consternation. Meanwhile, the organizations struggle under clouds of suspicion and loss of community trust.
Fortunately, there is a better way. First, instead of serial coverage in which claims of misconduct are repeated ad nauseum, Xpress should do the deep reporting to determine if the claims have merit. If evidence to support the claims is found, publish it. If not, stop the free publicity for factions that simply disagree with management.
Second, end the practice of indiscriminate anonymous postings, but make an exception for legitimate whistleblowers (who merit protection precisely because they produce evidence for their claims!).
Good journalism is always grounded in facts and evidence. This is the "objectivity" we hear so much about. Good journalism, like good science, holds "objects" out in the public light for all to observe. That's how journalism has always held power accountable.
Accountability breeds trust. In the end, trust is what matters. Trust, or lack thereof, is how we decide whether or not to give our time, energy or money to a political leader, organization or cause.
Fortunately, Mountain Xpress has a deep reserve of public trust. As it practices good journalism, our beloved alternative weekly will continue to hold power accountable and help to sustain the general flow of trust "in the name of creating a healthier, smarter community."
— Wally Bowen, founder and executive director of the nonprofit Mountain Area Information Network, was instrumental in obtaining public-access TV for Asheville and Buncombe County.
Thanks to Wally Bowen for both the kind words about Xpress on our anniversary and the in-depth critique of our coverage of local community media. We share his concern that coverage can be incomplete and serve as a foundation for polarization rather than healthy debate, especially when comments turn ugly on the Internet.
That said, we stand by our coverage of the developments at WPVM and URTV. While personnel issues certainly played a part, our reporting was not chiefly focused on them. In the case of WPVM, we reported on widespread dissent among station volunteers, covering a dispute that had already gone public. In the case of URTV, our reporting was sparked not by personnel matters, but by alleged violations of state open-meetings law — which the station, by its own admission, is beholden to follow — along with matters like a confidentiality oath administered to board members.
At the same time, we, too, are disturbed at how vitriolic the online comments often became with regard to both stations. We were disheartened to see people making so many personal attacks — sometimes while identifying themselves but often under the cloak of online anonymity. We screened out many of the most flagrant comments, but many that appeared online offered more bile than food for thought.
It's cases like these that have caused us to consider new approaches to how we moderate online comments. We are looking at more intensive moderation and other measures, such as differentiating between anonymous comments and those sent by identified writers. Alternatively, we might craft a system that will allow readers to do some of the policing. For example, they might be able to flag certain comments as off-topic or unhelpful to fostering constructive debate. Stay tuned — and thanks to all who keep reading and commenting in the spirit of true community media.
— Publisher Jeff Fobes and Managing Editor Jon Elliston can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.