Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Facebook headline contest was my bad idea

I went too far on Facebook.
In an effort to be more engaging, I invited Facebook readers to write a headline for a story about a man who, the county sheriff says, was caught smuggling pills into the county jail in a balloon stuffed into his rectum.
I said there were no promises the headline would appear in the much more staid print edition.
Facebook is has a different audience, a different tone than print. The rules are new, different and evolving.
It's apparent I broke those rules and offended a segment of the community.
That was not the goal.
Here was my thinking, which I now know to be flawed:
One of the most popular features in the Oneida Daily Dispatch and many other papers is the "Odd and Ends," short humorous stories, usually about somebody doing something stupid:
- The burglar getting stuck trying to climb in through the chimney.
- The Man getting arrested for DWI on a lawnmower.
- The woman selling chunks of crumbled sheetrock as crack to naive drug users.
- The political candidate getting arrested for DWI twice on the same night.
Each of these stories was funny and made its way around the globe because of that. I feel no guilt in running them even though, if you scratched below the surface, you'd likely find someone's disease-grade problem with drugs of alcohol, which clearly isn't funny.
But running the contest, even on Facebook, was wrong. While the goal was to be an engaging journalist, the reality was that I stepped over the line from journalist to not-so-funny comedian (even though I was soliciting the jokes from others).
For the record, I understand alcohol and drug dependence is a disease; my dad was an abusive alcoholic. But my opinion is that adults must accept responsibility for their actions.
These aren't the kinds of diseases one catches by touching a wrong doorknob or breathing the wrong air. You catch these diseases by sustained, repeated actions that everyone knows are bad choices.
And family members have often been dismayed by what they read about their loved ones, but we can't stop publishing facts.
But we can stop publishing ridicule.
The news business is changing; there are no models of how local news should be as we learn to use these new media.
We'll continue to experiment, especially with our online efforts to find the right balance;  I do believe our Facebook presence should be lighter and more informal than the print newspaper has traditionally been.
I'm labeling this experiment a failure; too many were offended to say it was anything else.
I'll fulfill my promise. Mike Hennagir wrote the most clever headline; it's not the one we used on today's story. But he'll receive his gift certificate.
But please note, that unlike the moderated comment feature on our website, we have no control over Facebook comments.
While this contest was my mistake, I'm sure people will continue to post observations that are stupid, clever, hurtful, supportive, liberal, conservative and everything in-between; that's How Facebook rolls.

Here what some people said:

Courtney Bennett -- What's the difference between actual print and Facebook? Offensive is still offensive regardless of the medium in which it was published. Just because this is not a "real tragedy" to you, it is for him and his family. Making light of someone with a disease (i.e. addiction) is never OK. Whoever hit the "submit button" on the initial post is a true disgrace to this community.

Angel Morales -- I'm sorry but addiction is not a disease. How can it be a disease when you have to first make a choice to do the drugs? Why should we have pity on someone who endangers their life, their family or any other human who chooses to do the right thing? You say pity them I say pity us as we are the ones who are paying for people to be in jail where they are kept warm and fed and relatively take it easy all while people can't afford to heat their homes, buy food or put gas in their cars. If they take a humorous approach and were to put it in the paper then kudos to them because the ones reading it spent their money buying the paper instead of buying drugs.

Kalenna Maire -- Well if he was not stupid enough to get caught maybe people would not overreact. It's so sad and funny at the same time. Don't feel sorry for him at all… Only people I feel sorry for are the decent people in his family that have to say they are related.

Robin Collins -- Yeah, I have to agree, this was a bad idea! Poor judgement on someone's part.  It's a drug problem; it's not funny.

If you visit our Facebook page, you'll see the opinion is pretty split. I'll assume that the many who offered headlines were not offended, and the poll has gone both ways, but remained close.
But what matters most to me, is how this sits on my conscience, and it's not well. We often publish news items that are distressing; that's our job and I can live with that.
I took people's reactions to heart. I wasn't wrong to publish the story, and even give it prominence.
I was wrong to encourage ridicule and apologize to those who were offended.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

In all honesty news is news. Knowing Rob personally its not anything shocking. If you don't wanna be in the paper for something negative don't do stupid things. Its really as simple as that. He messed up, he got caught, life goes on. At one point he had people in his life who wanted to help him, he chose this path in life. Seeing what he comes from its no real surprise.

February 26, 2013 at 3:17 AM 

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