Can we all just learn to interact?

As more newspapers use the Web to engage with readers, rather than treating the medium as just another publishing platform, their reporters will need to learn the skills necessary for interacting with the public. Unfortunately, these skills are not evident merely from observation, and take some time to develop.

Consider two recent failures: Los Angeles Times columnist Michael Hiltzik, a Pulitzer prize winner, lost his blog, and print column, when he was caught posting under aliases on his and other blogs, and Justin Quinn, a court reporter for the Lancaster (PA) Intelligencer-Journaller, left the paper after he was caught posting comments to the I-J’s online forums using pseudonyms.

In both cases, the reporters tried to engage the public according to what they perceived to be the rules of the game. Their intuitions, however, were incorrect. The reporters not only violated the mores of online communication, but also violated ethical principles of journalism.

Rushing reporters to interact is, in some respects, increasing a fear of interaction and confusion about how to interact. The popular impression of blog comments sections, and sometimes of blogging in general, is that the interaction is less than civil — and that the comments sections inevitably end up resembling trolled-to-death, flame-happy “echo chambers.”

That’s not the case when it comes to interaction on many popular blogs. Rebecca Blood, who has over the years written extensively on blogger ethics, gives several highly constructive don’ts of interaction in The Weblog Handbook — don’t attack others (but feel free to disagree), don’t ask for links, and don’t respond to flames. Blogging evangelist Andy Wibbles, in his book BlogWild! gives what he believes are some basic guidelines for “cultivating a climate for comments”: don’t be afraid to “unapprove” a comment, but respond to every comment posted. Even send a separate thank you e-mail. Many bloggers will follow Blood’s suggestions, and implement at least the former of Wibbles’ suggestions. Even the most ardent bloggers are often caught in a comment-response time-crunch and don’t have time to double-up on acknowledgments.

Time-crunch is a concern for the interactive newsroom, and evidence of a time-crunch for reporters surfaced in a recent article by Washington Post ombudsman Deborah Howell. In “Have You Emailed the Post Lately?” (Sunday, May 21, 2006) Howell notes that “Reporters today get more daily feedback from readers than any journalists in history,” and surveys several editors and reporters at the Post about how they manage the email they receive from the public. The response was mixed, with some reporters loving it, and others hating the “rude, crude, sexist, racist, anti-Semitic email” that seems to come as knee-jerk reactions to stories. Howell, though, having been the lightening rod for a series of hostile comments posted to in response to a statements she made in January regarding Jack Abramoff, understands how an insufficient response to the public can harm a paper. She concludes: “The opinions can be accepted or not, but knowing them is important. And replying–even quickly,–to local subscribers lets them know they’re needed. We blow them off at our peril.”

However, when we consider that the position of ombudsman did not exist prior to 1967, and that many newspapers still do not have this sort of basic attempt at interfacing with the public in their newsrooms, how can newsrooms expect reporters to make the leap into knowing exactly how to communicate like bloggers?

When the transparent, peer-to-peer interaction necessary to interact effectively on blogs has never truly been part of the average reporter’s day to day tasks, and when negative perceptions of blog commenters seem to overshadow the positive aspects of blogger to blogger interactions, newspapers in their rush to interact online can surely expect to have some very confused people in their newsrooms. And some might end up making very big, career-costing mistakes.

But is it even necessary to even have comments on a blog? It is generally agreed upon — although often debated — within the blogging community whether or not blogs need comments to be considered “real” blogs in the first place. That ideal, though, has been challenged in the current environment of “Web 2.0,” where conversation and peer-to-peer communication are as valuable, if not more valuable, than the dissemination of information, linking to others, and good storytelling. Newspapers are aware of this, and are establishing policies that allow for interaction, but are not educating reporters on the subtleties necessary for effective interaction.

In an effort to try to figure out how reporters can bridge maintaining journalism’s ethics while developing the skills necessary for positive interaction, I recently asked conversational media consultant, freelance reporter and former editor Amy Gahran for some suggestions. First, Amy advised that reporters, “get rid of [their] egos.” When reporters blog or write about subjects that get people emotionally charged, “realize that you are not responsible for how they feel about it” when they leave a comment. Learn to intuit the syntax comments, and try to “separate what they say from the tone in which it is conveyed. Then decide what’s worth listening (or responding) to and what’s not. ”

The appropriate response will also depend on cultivating a non-reactive temperament: “Learn not to snap back at hurtful, rude, inaccurate comments that misconstrue what you say or report on. It’s okay to say things strongly, and to be clear about what you are saying, but resist the urge to react back” to readers’ negative or contentious comments. Even if they’re acting like jerks right now, on another issue later on they might be valuable allies,” Gahran said. If you disagree with a commenter, make your point and “give them some room to save face. Most will tend to take the option.” If they persist to hammer at you ” you can ignore them or take out the big guns of the witty repost,” Gahran said. Just be prepared for the consequences.

Not all comments a reporter receives, however, will be negative, and Gahran suggested that reporters guard against big-ego responses to positives as well. “Don’t too swelled a head when people like what you say. You’re not responsible for that reaction either.”

Unlike standard journalism that strives for independent objectivity, blogs function best when the bloggers’ opinions and thought processes are known. There is room for both types of communication — objective and conversational — to develop within a newspaper’s web presence. “Not all journalism needs to be conversational. When it is conversational, it should have balance. When someone points out mistakes and makes a reporter think extra-hard about what’s been said, it should give a reporter more to write about.

“Reporter-bloggers should strive to develop a level of transparency. People want to see and know that the reporter is a person and revealing one’s thought processes can help. Show how you got your information and where you got it from,” Gahran advised. This will allow readers to backtrack and discover their own perspective. They may then bring up points that cause the reporter to re-think his/her position. If readers “see that a reporter is willing to reconsider a position in the face of criticism, readers will respond well to it,” Gahran said.

Asking reporters to blog, and to then interact like successful bloggers, is perhaps at this point in time asking for a quantum leap in the ways in which reporters have been instructed to perform their jobs. Misperceptions about blogging abound — in part because of the constant negative attention that is given to contentious comments and snarky blogs as much as it comes from simply not knowing the community. Focusing on the negatives, however, only serves to feed a fear of interaction. Positive interaction can occur, but reporters must first cultivate a non-confrontational temperament and other subtle skills — such as interpretation of syntax and a level of transparency — if they are going to interact successfully.

If newspapers are truly interested in cultivating interaction, and do not want to see some of their best reporters go down in flames because of bad interactions, newspapers will need to do more than give their reporter-bloggers a “blogging policy.” Newspapers cannot expect reporters to be able to immediately intuit a form of conversational media where the manner of interaction appear to run counter to the ethics journalists must uphold in their reporting, and has its own particular communication quirks. Rather, newspapers should neither rush nor refuse their reporters the task of interaction. They should allow for exploration and for asking questions.

A strategy for increasing revenues based on increased reporter interaction cannot be rushed. To do so might not just cause more reporters to unintentionally wreck their careers, but may also have the undesirable effect of driving readers, and revenue, away from newspapers.

About Tish Grier

Deputy Director of Participation (and blogger) for Assignment Zero (from 3/07)--a pioneering crowdsourced journalism project. I've also been blog editor and social media manager for the We Media Miami blog and editor for the Corante Media Hub. Freelance writing sometimes, too Along with writing, I've been interacting with folks across various evolving forms of social media for over a decade.

You name it, I've tried least once. Yes, I even have a MySpace profile.

I also keep two blogs--both with a different communication focus. My personal blog--started to break a serious case of writer's block-- consists of essays designed to establish communication with others on an intimate level. The Constant Observer, my "professional" blog (formerly known as Snarkaholic) is an attempt to establish communication with individuals who found analytical commentary, when set against the personal, to be a distraction--it has evolved into a citizen media-watch blog.

Both blogs have established rapport and community in their own unique ways and continue to be fabulous avenues for exploring various kinds of communication between myself and individuals I might not otherwise encounter.