the news frontier

Trust Falls

Lessons from St. Louis on authority, credibility, and online communications
March 4, 2010

In November of 2009, an editor at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch decided to show his readers who was boss. After a commenter persisted in posting “a vulgar expression for a part of a woman’s anatomy” on a “Talk of the Day” feature asking readers to name “the craziest thing you’ve ever eaten,” the editor, Kurt Greenbaum, observed that the comment originated from a local school’s IP address. Greenbaum called the school to inform them that somebody had been posting obscene comments from one of their computers. Shortly thereafter, officials at the school deduced that the comments had been posted by an adult employee. After being confronted with the evidence, the employee resigned.

Greenbaum told this story in a matter-of-fact Post-Dispatch blog post titled “Post a vulgar comment while you’re at work, lose your job.” The post, along with a follow-up, elicited over 600 responses from readers, overwhelmingly upset at the heavy-handed move and Greenbaum’s perceived smugness in defending it. (On his Twitter account, Greenbaum professed amazement “at the readers who comment in defense of a jackass who posted a vulgarity on our site — and lost his job.”)

He may well have expected praise for his actions. A jackass had posted a stupid comment. In the interest of civility, Greenbaum removed both the comment and the jackass. But the community made it clear that they found Greenbaum’s presumptions of authority far more menacing than any tasteless remarks:

“You have now set a very confusing precedent to the community, and one that I hope will give people pause about whether it’s really worth posting here to begin with.” – Andrew

“What troubles me most is that you seem to have forgotten is that journalism dies when we lose the public’s trust. You have destroyed your credibility and trust with your readers. As a result your have gravely damaged the credibility of this newspaper, and of this website in particular. That you are free to post a glib and disingenuous “follow up” demonstrates that the paper’s management has forgotten, too.” – Jim Logan

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“Your success, and the success of your paper, is predicated upon the trust of your readership. It is immaterial if you did not violate the letter of the law in regards to your privacy policy. What matters is that, clearly, the vast majority of your readers feel that you have violated their understanding of your privacy policy.” – Slueth Me

TRUST is a big deal between the media and public.. that’s why other journalists have gone to jail rather than reveal their sources. Why should we trust you any longer?” – Guest

“This makes me think much less of the P-D as a news organization, and it certainly makes me less interested in continuing to read your site or participate in your conversation.” – mccxxiii

“As of this morning, I was working on my application to the University of Missouri’s grad school for Journalism…. And the essay question was ‘what are the greatest threat[s] to American journalism in the next decade?’ My original answer was the decline of paper and literacy but I have decided to change my answer to you.” – Wilson

There are limits to what you can generalize from the Greenbaum affair. (As one commenter put it: “What you’ve done, Mr. Greenbaum, is so far from what almost any other journalist would have done that you are nothing but an outlier, not worthy of generalization. You’re a cautionary tale.”) Yet there are plenty of lessons to be learned from the Post-Dispatch commenters’ near-uniform hostility to Greenbaum’s actions. Cumulatively, those reactions are a case study in how newspapers no longer wield the monopolistic authority they once did in the communities they serve. For decades, by deciding what stories were covered and how they were covered, newspapers set the boundaries of acceptable discourse in their communities. They reinforced normative community manners—and those communities allowed them to do so, with (for the most part) little complaint.

For many reasons, readers are no longer as willing to let this happen. Rather, they are empowered as never before to define community manners and standards themselves—and to reject any heavy-handed efforts to influence those definitions. In attempting to “teach a lesson” to a commenter who had overstepped the boundaries, Greenbaum misinterpreted those boundaries himself—and miscalculated the extent to which he was authorized to set them.

In a follow-up blog post addressing the comment controversy, Greenbaum admitted that, before deciding to call the school about the vulgar comment, he probably should have “walked the idea around the newsroom.” While that move wouldn’t have hurt, it still presumes that the newsroom is the ultimate authority in setting community boundaries. What he really should have done is walked the idea around the Internet.

In his book My Pilgrim’s Progress, the critic George W.S. Trow explained how the media both defines and dominates the communities it serves. Trow wrote about what he called the Dominant Mind—the subtext of any given society; the primary ethic around which a community is oriented. For readers of The Wall Street Journal, the dominant mind is Wall Street. For the mid-twentieth-century Chicago Tribune, the dominant mind was prosperous Main Street conservatism.

A news outlet identifies and defines its community’s dominant mind, and then filters its news through that definition. This isn’t a matter of editorial-page bias so much as the sorts of stories that an outlet covers, and how those stories are reported and edited. The Journal doesn’t limit itself to reporting on mergers and acquisitions. But its coverage of other issues generally assumes that its core readership is steeped in the Wall Street perspective. The New York Post doesn’t just write about sex scandals and the politics of resentment. But its work is generally filtered through a dominant ethic of working-class prurience and reactionary populism.

As I wrote in a previous piece, there are myriad perspectives on any given news event. The news outlet’s role is to “sort all these competing perspectives and, for better or for worse, assert the dominant one.” It is through asserting the dominant perspective, then, that a news outlet sets the boundaries of acceptable discourse in the communities it serves. Communities, in general, trusted news outlets to do this because they presumed that the outlet’s staffers knew more about the subject than did the readers—that the staffers had better information, or more experience, or were otherwise mainlined into the Zeitgeist. And thus a paper could tell its readers: “This is what you’re interested in, and this is what you need to know about it,” and the readers would generally accept the paper’s authority.

This is a process that inevitably leads to the exclusion of disjunctive viewpoints, perspectives, and terminology. For a magazine like BusinessWeek, for instance, business news consists of lionizing executive culture, not investigative reporting on corporate malfeasance. A paper like the Post-Dispatch serves a mild, centrist world where one can brag about eating venison, but not about eating “a part of a woman’s anatomy.”

Previously, if your interests weren’t being served by your chosen source, you essentially had one option: Deal with it. Sure, you could go elsewhere for your news, but easily accessible alternatives were often few; easily accessible alternatives in your particular interest area were fewer still. If you belonged to the Wall Street culture, but you disliked the Journal’s editorial page, you likely still weren’t going to give the paper up—for all its flaws, it was still the only major source that served your dominant mind.

Now, more than ever, the news consumer doesn’t have to let a newspaper set the boundaries of discourse, or settle for a source that doesn’t reflect his or her attitudes. No longer do single sources monopolize the dominant mind. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch is still around—but there are also sources like the St. Louis Globe-Democrat, and the St. Louis Beacon, the Saint Louis Front Page, and the STL Syndicate. As Syracuse professor R. David Lankes writes, “There are simply more choices in whom to trust, and market forces have not come into play to limit choices. While this is true for virtually all media venues to some degree, the scale of choice on the internet make the internet particularly affected by shifts in authority.”

In his paper “Credibility on the internet: shifting from authority to reliability,” Lankes draws a distinction between authoritarianism and authoritativeness. Broadly, an authoritative source, when making a point, will say, “This is how it is—but don’t take my word for it, ask all these other sources who will confirm what I’m saying.” An authoritarian source, when making a point, will say, “This is how it is—because I say so.”

But in a communicative environment like the Internet, says Lankes, authoritarianism doesn’t work, because it implies that readers don’t have any other choice, or are unable to do their own research to come to their own conclusions on a subject. Online, it is harder to assert unilaterally the parameters of a dominant mind—to define a community and its (best) interests—because the community itself expects to play a substantial role in the defining. Online, it is insufficient to explain a controversial editorial decision with a casual “this is how it is, and this is what we did, and we’re not responsible to anyone else out there—what’re you gonna do about it?”

Well, there’s a lot that readers can do about it. They can go elsewhere for their news—or, for that matter, their conversation. (“This has to be one of the most unified, overwhelmingly negative response[s] to a story I’ve seen on this site, and perhaps anywhere, and it you just shrug it off [sic]. P.S. This is my last post on this site, and when I can get local news from the globe-democrat, I’m gone for good.”) They can register their discontent across the Internet. (“USPS will be sending Mr Kurt Pussy Greenbaum 12500 USPS boxes and 2400 priority mail envelopes within 5-7 days with love from and the internet. Also, he is scheduled to have daily package pickups for the next 3 months for with international shipping.. I’m sure he has caught the attention of some government agency by now. Signed, Boxman”) They can create their own sources that compete with the incomplete perspective that a news outlet provides. (“Welcome to, where we chronicle how an intolerant St. Louis douchebag pissed off the entire fucking Internet.”)

Greenbaum’s phone call was a violation of trust, and would have been a violation in any era. But the ferocity of the response—the utter rejection of the Post-Dispatch’s authority to do what it did—was an entirely modern thing, and it’s a direct consequence of newspapers’ outdated and medium-inappropriate reliance on the authoritarian credibility model.

As one commenter wrote: “What would a real blogger…a *real* “social media expert” do in a situation like yours? Would they have gone off on their own personal witch-hunt? Or, might they have taken some time to address the issue in myriad *different* ways? Perhaps a post about the tendency of modern colloquial language to be more profanity-laced than in days gone by? I think you’d have garnered a great deal of support for bemoaning that issue, and at the very least, you could have used the situation to do what you claim to understand about the “social media” – started a real conversation about the issue.”

B y 2009, the Post-Dispatch’s “Talk of the Day” column had been around for five years, and some at the paper were wondering whether it had run its course. Every weekday, more or less, the paper would pose a question to readers—“Why did Sarah Palin resign?”, for instance, or “Where did you play as a kid—and not tell your mom about?”—who would respond in comments. But the comments were often rude, or intemperate. Although readers seemed to enjoy “Talk of the Day,” the feature often seemed to divide rather than unite the Post-Dispatch commenting community.

On November 4, a little more than a week before he called the school, Greenbaum aired his frustrations with the feature in a blog post: “[M]any days, I am sorely tempted to stick a fork in TOTD and say it’s done…. Would you miss the Talk of the Day? Do you have any suggestions to breathe life into it? Is it worth continuing? Look, I get that politics is interesting and infinitely debatable, I just don’t think anyone’s really debating here; they’re just name-calling.”

Pretty much every news outlet these days wants to become a place where readers come to debate and converse with one another. But the conversations they hope to foster are predominantly authoritarian in nature, mimicking the one-way dynamic of talk radio rather than the two-way dynamic of friends talking. Talk radio is very popular. A lot of people like it. But there’s nothing authoritative about it. A talk radio host can be stupid, and glib, and abusive, and have no interest in legitimately conversing with or listening to his callers—and his failures will not necessarily result in a diminution of status. His listeners are an audience, not a true community, and they are only indirectly connected with the host and with each other.

Online news outlets today say that they’re trying to build a community, when what they’re really building is a talk radio show. They don’t present an environment where true communities can form—and then they act surprised when these “communities” fail.

In his 2007 book Living on Cybermind, the anthropologist Jonathan Paul Marshall writes about thirteen years in the life of Cybermind, an online mailing list founded in order to “explore, exemplify and discuss the sociology and psychology of cyberspace.” Marshall’s book is perhaps the best longitudinal study of online patterns of interaction that I have seen. The Cybermind community resembles the sort of community that news outlets might like to build—its members were highly intelligent, articulate, and engaged in the world around them. Understanding how and why the listmembers came to trust each other, and to trust the list as a community, might help outlets understand how things work—and why things don’t work—on their own Web sites.

Marshall suggests that we think about online community interactions in terms of the sort of “gift economy” favored by some stateless societies. On Cybermind, each individual message was a gift, and participants attained high status based on their skill at both giving and receiving. A good gift was salient, brief, and didn’t make too many demands on a receiver’s time. An accomplished giver gave their gift with the idea that it was to be received by a community, and with some idea of who would be receiving it. An accomplished receiver didn’t just let a gift sit there unmentioned, but instead acknowledged receipt and, if appropriate, reciprocated with a gift of his own. The most respected members of the Cybermind list were those who were best at this. They became respected for what they said and did, not for who they said they were.

Back, then, to the Post-Dispatch. The paper erred by calling the school to complain about its rogue commenter. But they also erred in creating an environment that encouraged rogue commenting in the first place. The invitation to name the exotic foods readers had eaten was a weak one—one that smacked of token rather than true engagement. (As Marshall writes, “The gift requests acknowledgment, but cannot demand return from anyone.”) The prompt wasn’t a gift so much as a command—“this is how we will interact today.” It wasn’t really an invitation to comment or interact in any meaningful way; the site offered nothing to indicate that anybody at the Post-Dispatch was reading or compiling the responses or otherwise planning to take them seriously.

The paper, in other words, offered no real sense of ownership of its comment sections, no sense that anybody was curating them or otherwise invested in their health. (Many of the responses noted that other Post-Dispatch articles were dominated by racist comments that nobody had seen fit to moderate or remove; by Greenbaum’s own admission, the “Talk of the Day” column had become the sort of feature where “every topic devolves into a partisan screed. Democrats and Republicans, conservatives and liberals — all roads lead to the same tired, boring arguments.”)

One week before the “female anatomy” incident, after soliciting suggestions on how to fix the “Talk of the Day” feature, Greenbaum told readers he was “going to be more ruthless about deleting comments that are off-topic and accomplish nothing more than lobbing flames into the marketplace of ideas.” Cybermind took a different approach toward putting out fires. From time to time, Marshall points out, Cybermind participants persisted in giving poisoned gifts—messages that were tonally or thematically inappropriate or otherwise disruptive. Although Cybermind was run by a man named Alan Sondheim, who had the power to unsubscribe any poster, in cases like these Sondheim inevitably subsumed his authority to that of the community. Sondheim gave the participant enough time to demonstrate to the community that he was acting in bad faith, and for the community to comment on the participant and come to some sort of consensus about him. Only then did Sondheim push the kill button.

To be sure, it’s important that Sondheim could push that button. Communities need to have people with that power, or else, as Clay Shirky has written, the community risks becoming its own worst enemy. But it’s also important that unilateral action wasn’t Sondheim’s first choice.

Many online social spaces take their orienting principles from real-world communities. They presume the existence of a sort of social contract that establishes normative community manners and behavior and punishes disjunctive behavior. But unlike in formal states, where the rules of society are codified and enforced by law, informal societies are less hierarchical. Marshall writes: “The term ‘social contract’ suggests that society is a voluntary and deliberate compact, that there is one social interest, and that society members agree to the power structures, to their ‘place’ and so forth…. Most online ‘social contract’ is impermanent and continually renegotiable, involving variable parties and different levels of agreement. The difference between this kind of ‘contract’ and the agreements normally referred to by that term is too significant to ignore.”

It’s true. Online communities don’t generally resemble small towns so much as hobo jungles. Members pick up and leave without warning. New users arrive knowing and caring nothing about the community’s history. Participants have different levels of commitment to the community, and different ideas of what they expect to get in return for participating. Social contracts don’t work online because nobody is compelled, in any meaningful sense, to comply with them.

You can’t mandate your own authority online. You can’t demand that people trust you without giving them good reason to grant you that trust. The Post-Dispatch, like other news outlets, assumed that the mere invitation to discourse was enough—and it assumed that the Post-Dispatch imprimatur would be enough to entice readers to participate in a lackluster feature. But fiat authority will only take you so far. It’ll take you to where most papers are today, with sites that people visit out of habit more than any real volition. That’s not authority. That’s indifference.

Real authority, I think, comes from acknowledging that your community members come bearing gifts, and engaging with those gifts in good faith. When members do become invested in a community, it is usually because the community takes its members seriously enough to make it worth the investment.

The extent to which media outlets are attuned to the communities they serve is of paramount importance in determining their authority and credibility in those communities. As Internet journalism evolves, these outlets must rethink the role they have traditionally played in dominating and defining their communities. The legacy media need to stop treating their online audience like an audience, and to start treating them instead like members of a community: less like listeners to a talk show, and more like friends talking. To do otherwise is to court mistrust, scorn, and eventual irrelevance. As one Post-Dispatch commenter wrote regarding the Greenbaum affair: “Kurt – it’s 2009. It’s no longer about you, your paper, and so-called journalism principles. We readers, viewers and listeners – it’s about us. WE’RE your judge and jury. Period.”

For a list of suggestions for further reading, click here. For Megan Garber’s companion piece on narrative authority in a fragmented world, click here. For an overview of the Press Forward series and links to older content, click here.

Justin Peters is editor-at-large of the Columbia Journalism Review.