Editorial: Curtailing public comment to avoid Facebook headaches

Weighing importance of public engagement over divisive nature of social media

It has been suggested we prohibit comments on articles about Indigenous issues.

Blocking comments is not something we do lightly. Comment sections exist to provide a place for readers to engage, share opinions and, from time to time, suggest corrections (unfortunately the odd error happens – at least until human journalists are replaced by AI). When comments/conversations are blocked on a story, it usually has to do with their having devolved into personal and/or libelous attacks.

With the ongoing pipeline protests and related blockades, a national story that touches the lives of many, the comment sections on our website have seen little activity. Facebook is another matter.

Stories about the Indigenous protesters/defenders have sparked some interesting dialogue and debate. Unfortunately, they have also prompted race-based degradation and other hostilities. Equally deplorable are comments suggesting protesters on railway tracks be run down by trains. Sometimes these comments suggesting injury or death are met with happy faces and thumbs up from commenters.

This behaviour on social media adds nothing to the conversation, does nothing to promote useful debate and does everything to widen divides, promote fear and hatred, and give legitimacy to violence.

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Another avenue some media are opting for is to no longer share such stories about Indigenous issues on Facebook, so as to avoid the potential headache of moderating. What will they do with other stories that stir controversy and/or conflicting opinions among readers – as compelling news stories tend to do?

The late Henry Grunwald, once editor of Time, said journalism can never be silent – that is its greatest virtue and its greatest fault. Journalism has an obligation to inform public opinion. Unfortunately, it is increasingly being put in the position where it must also silence it.

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