Illustration by Hana Shafi

Illustration by Hana Shafi

In this episode, Kathy English, the Toronto Star's public editor, joins me. We take a look at why Canada's largest daily reached a breaking point in the cesspool of incivility that lies beneath online stories. Once seen as promising spaces for deliberation, newsroom managers are now striving to find ways to support their writers against the worst offenders. Hana Shafi and Erica Lenti, National Magazine Award nominees, share their insights.

The Toronto Star closed comments on all online stories at the end of 2015 in an attempt to stop the flood of abuse that appeared on the site.

“Online comments were problematic from the get go,” says Kathy English, the Toronto Star’s public editor.

“I don’t think any news organization has figured out an optimal online commenting system,” she says, despite the newspaper’s fairly vigorous moderating team.

Kathy English, Toronto Star public editor. Photo courtesy of Google Images.

The Star’s seven-year run with online commenting was first met with optimism, until the racist and sexist commenters were taking away from the fairness and accuracy of stories. While newsrooms struggle with moderation, and agonize over the value of the discussions that rage in the space below a story, the Star’s new approach is to showcase comments Star readers share across social media, as well as in letters and emails to their reporters.

“Given the reality of journalists being asked to do way more than they’ve ever done before, I think it’s unrealistic to think that every journalist is going to spend their day interacting with their audience,” says English, assessing the importance of community-driven conversation.

Social media is not immune to vitriol, but Michael Cooke, the Star’s editor, believes this is a step towards a healthier, more engaged readership.

In principle, I love the idea of news as a conversation.

The National Post has switched to a system that requires users who want to comment to log in using their Facebook account. The Globe and Mail allows registered users to leave comments on most online articles so long as they follow its stated community guidelines.

“In principle, I love the idea of news as a conversation,” English wrote in a 2014 column. “But clearly, news organizations need to find a better way to keep the conversation out of the gutter,” noting that one reader told her “it feels too much like diving into a mud fight.”

Collaborative journalism might be a lofty intention on this side of the border, but the well-informed and impassioned commenters on the New York Times site is a model worth evaluating. Intriguingly, of the 9,000 online comments the site receives a day, a Presbyterian minister, an electrical engineer, and a science fiction writer are some of the site’s most influential contributors.

I spoke to Kathy about the Star’s ongoing commitment to trust and credibility, and the decisions newsrooms need to make if they want to restore a sense of community among readers. 

You can read a condensed and edited version of our interview here.

It’s a typical Friday afternoon; Hana Shafi is checking her social media accounts after an affirmation piece she illustrates gets featured on the HuffPost Women Instagram account.

“I can’t help but laugh at how trite and underachieving these people are,” says the Toronto-based artist and journalist. She counts 12 insults in the first hour her artwork is online.

“I see the value of keeping avenues of conversation open,” says Erica Lenti, Torontoist’s deputy editor. “But hate can very easily spread to Twitter.”

Shafi says what matters is how interactive and reachable the editors and authors are, and how committed they are to a two-way relationship with readers.

 Hana Shafi, Toronto-based freelance journalist and artist. Photo courtesy of Facebook.

Hana Shafi, Toronto-based freelance journalist and artist. Photo courtesy of Facebook.

“It’s hard to interview people who are of marginalized identities if they know they’re going to get terrible, bigoted comments about them,” says Shafi, adding that the hate will subsequently be directed at her.

“It’s a vicious cycle for writers.”

In an effort to protect freelance writers like Shafi, the editorial team at the Torontoist, albeit small, is aware of the growing uncertainty that looms after clicking “publish.”

“If someone is writing about a really sensitive topic, we actually ask them if they would prefer to have the comments closed,” says Lenti.

“I think it’s the job of young editors to step in,” she says, to provide writers with a necessary buffer against offenders.

If a situation with a writer escalates, Lenti says the editorial team deals with it on a case-by-case basis. Toronotoist, like many publications across the country, can’t afford a team of community editors in budget-tightening times. That’s why social media is an attractive alternative; publications are hoping conversations will continue where hashtags and links back to stories will serve as a kind of free advertising for the brand.    

Earlier this year, Lenti wrote a piece in Toronto Life about the genderqueer revolution through the coming out story of Jason Cole. The majority of the comments on the story didn’t encourage constructive dialogue, a symptom of the larger problem with public debate spaces. Does the refusal to provide a space in which blind rage can flourish abandon free speech?

“Harassment doesn’t necessarily have to be derogatory, it doesn’t have to be blatantly violent; it could just be something that makes me feel unsafe,” says Lenti.

“It could make me want to get off the Internet and fear the person who’s contacting me.”

 Erica Lenti, deputy editor of  Torontoist . Photo courtesy of Facebook.

Erica Lenti, deputy editor of Torontoist. Photo courtesy of Facebook.

Shafi echoes the sentiments, saying writers should not have to subscribe to irrational and impulsive commentary. “Even when people use their real name they get this enormous sense of bravery just being on a keyboard. What we’re able to type is so much different than what we’re able to say,” she says.

The kind of person who devotes their day to derailing conversations with strangers anonymously on the Internet may not be indicative of wider public opinion, but the fact is, anonymity remains a double-edged sword.

“You can’t take anonymity away because it serves such an important purpose for people who sincerely need it, but people who shouldn’t have it abuse it,” says Lenti, urging better education for young men about Internet etiquette.

You can’t take anonymity away because it serves such an important purpose for people who sincerely need it, but people who shouldn’t have it abuse it.

“Using your privilege to make a point can just be a great thing,” says Shafi, recalling a time when a man stepped in and tweeted encouraging words at her after a personal narrative she wrote about microaggressions. “Users will see this behaviour, which sets a good example.”

“I think people who are writing about these difficult topics are playing an incredibly important role in journalism,” says Lenti. “I don’t think that we should be dissuaded by angry people on the Internet; we should continue to do what we do.”

In the interest of clarity, this interview has not been condensed and edited.