After Hostile Comments, One Source Says ‘No Comment’

May 10, 2010

This is one in a series of posts based on or inspired by research for my Contemporary Media Issues class on how the challenges and opportunities associated with presenting news online are affecting journalistic values.

The previous post mentioned how abusive comments can scare off other commenters. A recent blog post by a Washington Post reporter told of how they can scare off sources as well. This is no small matter. The institution of journalism is built on the premise that sources trust that what’s published about them represents them fairly. If this trust is lost, we all lose.

Post reporter Christian Davenport told how a few insensitive comments burned a bridge he had spent weeks building with a reluctant source. The source, a debt collector named Michael Sutherland, was one of the few in his industry to even consider speaking on the record for Davenport’s story about debt collection during the Great Recession. Patience and assurances that “he was committed to being fair and accurate” won Daveport access. Of course, no matter how committed Davenport was, the cumulative tone of the Post’s coverage was dependent on how well commenters shared his commitment. These two comments, which still appear under the original article, provide an indication of how they did:

griffmills wrote:
What scum….Scam-acne-face-Sutherland and all his little minions, scum….special place in Hell for them
2/14/2010 8:57:18 AM

billdinva2 wrote:
Debt collectors are the scum of the earth. They should be hung up by their private parts and shot. Hint: Ignore them. Don’t answer the phone. When they sue answer and bury them in discovery. The debt collection industry runs on default and goes after the weak.
2/14/2010 4:31:58 AM

When Davenport e-mailed Sutherland seeking feedback on the story, Sutherland replied that he was upset about the way he and his colleagues were portrayed in the comments. He swore off ever speaking to a reporter again. True to his word, he didn’t return Davenport’s e-mail seeking comment for the reporter’s blog post.

In his post, Davenport discusses the obligation journalists feel to protect sources from “an outfall that might result from agreeing to go on the record.” That’s now harder for them to do. More ominously, there’s the potential that the threat of harassing comments will discourage would-be sources from ever talking in the first place.

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