BROOM: He said, she said
The comments section of The Cavalier Daily’s website should be used an avenue for further engagement
The big goings-on at The Cavalier Daily website this past week had to do with climate change, speakers invited to the University and website commenting policy. Literally hundreds of comments across a few columns provided for some interesting reading if one could slog through all of it.
It started when Thomas Forman II wrote a piece published in the Opinion section in which he took issue with the College Republicans inviting Phil Valentine, a radio talk show host, to speak about climate change. Forman’s column attracted quick attention, at first largely from people who disagreed with him and eventually from many commenters arguing multiple sides of various points, including whether any debate is worthwhile, whether climate change is real, whether climate change is caused by people and so on. It’s important to note here that part of the reason there were so many issues being addressed in the comments is that the point of the piece itself was not entirely clear. I found myself having to re-read the column several times to try and be certain I was getting Forman’s point.
Further, and in many ways more importantly, in the first iteration of the column as published there were simple factual errors about Phil Valentine’s biography. He was erroneously called a former congressman instead of, correctly, the son of a former congressman. As I read comments along the lines of “if you can’t get that right, why should I believe the rest of the facts you claim to write?” I found myself thinking — there’s something of a point here. No, getting something that is ultimately fairly trivial wrong doesn’t invalidate reams of research about climate change, but when you’re trying to convince people of something, especially something they’re reluctant to believe, being wrong about such things undercuts any other point you want to make. As this was a guest Opinion piece, I’m not sure how much The Cavalier Daily needs to do in terms of basic fact checking. If this were a regular columnist, I’d be much more critical about simple things like biographical errors slipping through. I lean towards thinking that the editorial process should include fact-checking things that are verifiable. Clearly, opinions do not fall into this category.
Peter Finocchio, Chairman of the University College Republicans, and Phil Valentine both wrote responses to Forman’s piece. Kyle Gardiner, a student in the Batten School, also wrote a response to the response.
Ultimately, all of these pieces really ended up talking right past each other, and I’m not sure anyone would learn much of anything from reading them, certainly not about climate change. In the comments, though, a rollicking exchange got going and then got out of hand, prompting the managing board (or whoever was acting on their behalf) to delete many comments and cut off access to at least one screen name. I was following the comments in just about real time and I applaud their action. In an excellent piece explaining why there is a comment policy and why they enforced it in this case, the managing board reaffirmed their commitment to making The Cavalier Daily a resource for the community. I encourage the managing board to continue with the same attitude moving forward. As a reader, the overly vitriolic comments make the comment option useless as a way to engage the material in The Cavalier Daily, much less to engage in conversations with other readers.
Lastly, for this week, I renew my call for better descriptions of who is writing Opinion pieces and in which section they’re being published. It is unclear who is a guest writer, who is a normal columnist for The Cavalier Daily and in which section some columns are being published. The Opinion section and the Life section both have columnists and if the section is not highlighted in the banner at the top of the webpage, it can be impossible to tell which section the piece is in. Further, within the Opinion section it can be impossible to tell whether someone is a one-time guest, whether that guest column was invited or sent unsolicited and whether the person is affiliated with the University in some way. Perhaps reviving the letters to the editor section more and using it instead of the Opinion page to publish such pieces would help. Or a specific graphic that will identify guests and whether the column was solicited would be useful.
Christopher Broom is the public editor for The Cavalier Daily. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @cd_publiceditor.