Column: Hate post on Web is teachable moment
After becoming your editor in January, one of my first moves was to suspend comments on articles on the News Tribune's Web site. The reason, in a single word, was abuse. We receive far more comments than you see posted online, which our staff rea...
After becoming your editor in January, one of my first moves was to suspend comments on articles on the News Tribune's Web site. The reason, in a single word, was abuse. We receive far more comments than you see posted online, which our staff reads to screen out those that are offensive, vulgar or otherwise uncivil. It's an embarrassment that a community priding itself on "Minnesota Nice" would have so much hate brewing under the surface, but it's also a reality.
Comments are still allowed on blogs moderated by the staff reporters, as well as on obituaries and "Talk About It" -- a daily question intended as a community forum.
Unfortunately, despite the screening, earlier this month a racially offensive comment got through on the talk section, which we removed as soon as a reader alerted us of it.
The News Tribune employee who approved the comment owned up to it immediately. She apologized profusely, explaining she did not know the term was offensive, and sat down with me and a member of the community outraged by the remark for a teachable moment of ways to recognize hate speech in its myriad forms. That has extended to an ongoing discussion with other members of the community and the rest of the news staff.
I and the entire newspaper also apologize for the posting. It should not have appeared.
So where do we go from here?
One suggestion is to require commenters to sign their names, similar to letters to the editor, all of which are subject to a call from the editorial page staff verifying the writers are in fact who they say they are. Verifying the far greater volume of online comments is more difficult, however, and would require an untenable amount of staff time.
Donna Ennis, co-chair of the Duluth American Indian Commission, offered a creative solution: for community members to serve as volunteer screeners. It's an innovative idea worth exploring, and we will, cautioned by her warning that volunteers not become "diversity police," nor should they inhibit political speech of any stripe.
The easiest answer is to shut off comments entirely. But that would greatly limit the public discourse that a newspaper is all about. Far more dangerous, it also would mean the person posting the hateful comment will have won.
Assuming "Kyle G," the name used on the posting, is correct as far as gender, he hasn't won and won't, not if we as a community refuse to allow it. To begin with, he's not quite as anonymous as he may think. His e-mail address is retained in the News Tribune's system, and it wouldn't take a forensic genius to determine his identity. Let's be real: In this small-town city, how long can anyone keep a secret?
Most important is what we will say to him when he is found: Yes, we will express our anger. Yes, we will want him to feel the pain he sought to inflict in others. But beyond that is the truly teachable moment of changing a troubled person's soul.
Elwin Hope Wilson of Rock Hill, S.C., knows something about that. A former member of the Ku Klux Klan who viciously beat blacks on numerous occasions, Wilson, 73, is now repentant and seeking forgiveness from those he harmed. One is U.S. Rep. John Lewis of Georgia, whom Wilson attacked in 1961 and with whom he now makes public appearances.
"It seems like a person who has a lot of hate in him," Wilson said when I called and told him of Kyle G. "He has got to meet his maker one day."
Before he does, Wilson asked me to have Kyle call him.
I did, through the e-mail address. Kyle, here's your chance.
Robin Washington is editor of the News Tribune. He may be reached at email@example.com .