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Cruelty behind the keyboard (10/07/2012)
By Frances Edstrom


     
When a La Crosse television news reporter recently spoke out about receiving an email in which the writer called her “obese,” we talked about it in our own newsroom.

Sarah Squires, who has been a newspaper reporter for 9 years, called it being “cruel behind the keyboard.” Something rises like the monster out of Loch Ness in people when they find themselves with the power to anonymously be snarky, mean, or insulting. But less often, it seems, do writers of nasty things even try to be anonymous.

Elections bring out the attack letters and cheap shots. At the Winona Post, we don’t like to see mean commentary, but will tolerate it as protected speech when directed at a public figure. Many candidates for elected office are caught off-balance when the mudslingers churn out letters and other campaign material. But public figures are legitimate targets for criticism in and from the media and via the U.S. mail.

At the Post, letter writers must identify themselves. That tends to temper the nastiness of some—but not all. When a writer does criticize a candidate, we allow the candidate to rebut the accusations.

In the “olden” days, a person had to write a letter on a typewriter or by hand, and find a way to deliver it. That extra time gave a person a chance to reconsider what had been written. The receiver had time to think before penning a response. Even a heated phone call was between the two parties, not to be broadcast far and wide.

Being at the keyboard seems to encourage people to put into print (or online, digital print) nearly every thought they have. Sometimes it’s just innocuous or boring. “I just had the best peanut butter sandwich ever.” Sometimes it is nasty. Thoughts can be sent to an infinite number of people, instantaneously. It’s so easy, a child can do it.

Just two weeks ago, we ran an exclusive story about an attack on one student by another at Winona High School. It was filmed by a student with a cell phone and posted on a Facebook page. The attacker, the person who recorded the fight, and many of their friends commented on the video. None seemed to think that perhaps their names should not be associated with their thoughtless, mean, online messages. Could they only be doing what they see their parents doing?

How can we teach children to temper what they say, to be humane and considerate of others? How can we teach them that it is detrimental to their reputations and future to leave an online trail of bad behavior?

The Winona police, once a parent alerted them to the Facebook video and posts about an assault at the high school, did charge the perpetrator. Does it occur to these Facebook posters that the police now have followed their trail, that the school now has this information in their files? That this evidence is available to future employers and higher learning institutions? And, that they provided this evidence to the authorities all by themselves—by their behavior and online blabbing?

But what about the kid who beat up the other kid? She explained her actions by saying, “that’s the way it works these days.” Really?

Parents should watch themselves to make sure they are not giving a bad example, which if copied will harm their children. They should warn their kids of the consequences of bad behavior and unfettered Internet commentary. The Internet is a great communication tool. Just make sure you aren’t communicating the wrong things—cruelty, baseness, and ignorance.  

 

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