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Rules of etiquette, decency and fairness should apply to both media workers and consumers

It was a quiet Thursday afternoon when a co-worker strolled into my office, sat in a chair and asked me a seemingly innocent—but loaded—question.

"Why did you write about that?" he inquired, referencing my recent piece (Feb. 25) about sex-worker rights. His facial expression and tone were telling—it wasn't something he wanted to read about. To each his own, but what concerned me was the idea that writing about this topic was somehow wrong.

I explained my position—I like to present viewpoints of those who are often ignored or misrepresented in the press. I have a willingness to seek out neglected or "alternative" voices in the community. After all, that's one of the purposes of an alternative newsweekly.

Being questioned about what we write, and how we write it, is par for the course. These days, with readers accessing stories on the Web, it's easy for readers to quickly leave online comments.

One of my favorite reader comments said, in part, "Shame on you for printing this." This was in response to a piece about a non-Native American woman who runs a sweat lodge (Jan. 14).

Should we be ashamed of presenting different practices, viewpoints and ways of life? Absolutely not; exposing various sides of a community and its members is our job.

Article I of the Statement of Principles put forth by the American Society of Newspaper Editors (ASNE) references the responsibility of journalists: "The primary purpose of gathering and distributing news and opinion is to serve the general welfare by informing the people and enabling them to make judgments on the issues of the time."

There are plenty of "judgments on the issues." But these days, "the people"—in Web comments, especially—start off judging the issues, but often expand to judging each other. This happens everywhere online, from gossip-magazine sites to traditional news sites. "All the people who say that this women got what she deserved for working with whales need to be dragged outside there homes and shot," posts CXVII under " SeaWorld Trainer Died From Traumatic Injuries, Drowning, Officials Say" on cnn.com.

Article VI of the ASNE Statement of Principles references fair play: "Journalists should respect the rights of people involved in the news (and) observe the common standards of decency ... ."

If journalists have a Statement of Principles outlining decency and fair play, where are these principles for media consumers? Sitting safely behind a computer screen, people can blatantly ignore social decorum. Readers can freely call someone an idiot, question their sanity and insult their family—all with a few taps on the keyboard.

When journalists write news stories, or commentators write opinions, their byline is not some nickname or acronym—it's almost always their real name. But media consumers can be anonymous. Is it fair play to be nasty and nameless?

Don't get me wrong; the ability to express opinions openly is one of the great freedoms in our country. But with the presence of 24-hour cable channels, blogs, online comment forums and social media, it is the way that we are expressing these opinions that matters.

It's one thing to disagree about the issue at hand; it's another thing to be unkind to a person who has a different point of view. Far too many people have forgotten social etiquette while surfing the World Wide Web.

The Internet chapter in Miss Manners' Guide to Excruciatingly Correct Behavior, by Judith Martin, starts off with a great summation: "All right, hands off the Send button, everyone. There is the problem, right there: Send before Think."

In school, we learned to stop, duck and cover under our desks in the event of a nuclear attack. Sure, that's not very effective, but perhaps we should modify this lesson to prevent personal attacks on the Internet: Think, type and send.

In this new age of American journalism, it's still the media's job to tell stories—about the crooked politician, the quirky street vendor downtown, the local nudist club—all with fairness. And it's a reader or viewer's job to comment on these stories with respect—for the journalists, for the subjects and for each other—even in the face of disagreement.

More by Irene Messina

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