This morning, I saw a Tweet that said the following:
My brother is awful to my parents and we think he has mental health issues https://t.co/iKglEPeSet
— The Guardian (@guardian) August 11, 2017
And my curiosity was piqued. What sort of a piece would have a headline like that? I was guessing it was a Dear Abby-type advice column. I HOPED it wasn’t a let-it-all-hang-out piece by an identified person talking about his or her family. That is, I hoped those pictures in the illustration weren’t of the actual people involved.
I didn’t think they were, but I was curious enough to click and find out.
What I found was something that puzzled me. It had the anonymous person writing in, but not the answer from the “Abby” figure. No advice at all. Just the personal problem set out, followed by comments.
But the thing I liked was the editor’s note that lay between the problem and the comments. It went like this:
When leaving a message on this page, please be sensitive to the fact that you are responding to a real person in the grip of a real-life dilemma, who wrote to Private Lives asking for help, and may well view your comments here. Please consider especially how your words or the tone of your message could be perceived by someone in this situation, and be aware that comments that appear to be disruptive or disrespectful to the individual concerned will be removed.
It was a standard “Don’t respond just to be a jerk” appeal, but I liked the way it tried to reach, oh-so-optimistically, the humanity in the responder, however dormant it might be.
…you are responding to a real person in the grip of a real-life dilemma, who wrote to Private Lives asking for help…
If only people could always keep that in mind. Too many of us have trouble with that. I’ve written about this before, but I will again: Nonjournalists think of reporters as cynical jerks who no more consider the humanity of their subjects than they would the hopes and dreams of an ant under a magnifying glass.
But that’s actually not the case. Their editors might be that way, if they don’t get out of the office much. And copy editors are the most dismissive cynics to be found in a newsroom. To them, newsmakers are abstractions, distant figures even farther from them than the ant under the glass. Copy editors who work on morning newspapers can be, in my experience, the worst, because they don’t meet many people, period. Their hours don’t allow for it, and their reality becomes what they read on a screen, and the company of the other cynics that sit around them, the more extroverted of them making sarcastic cracks about the people in the news — and about the stupid reporters who apparently have never consulted a stylebook.
Reporters, by contrast, know their subjects — even the worst among them — as people. They see the newsmakers whole, as living, breathing creatures. They may be tough on them, but they know they’re being tough on fellow humans. Reporters have to be able to do that in order to connect with sources and do their jobs.
There are a lot of readers out there who are like those copy editors. The people they read about aren’t real to them.
So while it may or may not work, I appreciate that approach to asking commenters to be civil. The first step is remembering that the people they’re responding to are people…