CONTENT ALERT: rape, news coverage of rape, rape apologists
KAIT is the local news station in Northeast Arkansas, serving the Jonesboro region, where Arkansas State University is located. This week, the station posted a story on its Facebook page about the fourth rape reported on campus this year. In the unmoderated comments, a jerk–let’s just call him “James Harmon” because that is the Facebook name he posted under–suggested that rape is just part of college life.
A local activist noted the comment and contacted KAIT to remove it, naturally figuring that it would be no problem to remove a comment that told women they should expect to be raped; she shared Harmon’s comments and asked others of us to speak up. I personally followed up with a phone call, too. Like others who complained, I was contacted by a customer service representative who told me that 1) KAIT could not moderate comments, 2) this comment did not violate Facebook’s policy and so KAIT could not remove it, and 3) that James Harmon had a First Amendment right to make such comments on KAIT’s Facebook page.
He is in customer service, so he had to keep his voice down. I did not.
I followed up with a letter to Chris Conley, Vice-President and General Manager of the Station, which I submitted to parent company Raycom. I encourage you to contact KAIT directly and to share your concerns with Raycom.
Dear Mr. Conley,
I write to share my frustration at KAIT’s failure to act quickly to protect the dignity of viewers and insure that a culture of rape is not promoted in the viewing region.
Yesterday, someone posting as “James Harmon” shared a vile message on a story about a sexual assault at Arkansas State University. When I saw it, I quickly contacted KAIT to request that it be removed. A customer service representative returned my call and explained that, as the comment did not violate Facebook’s posting policy, it would stay.
This is an insufficient response, and I was glad to see the comment eventually removed. However, KAIT’s initial decision to hide behind Facebook’s policy suggests a failure of leadership. KAIT can certainly have a standard higher than Facebook’s standard. Indeed, your viewers deserve a higher standard. In a 2016 editorial, you yourself said that KAIT would delete any content it deemed offensive in an effort to insure that readers could disagree “while still showing some respect.” Mr. Harmon’s comments added no value to the conversation, showed no respect at all, and were deeply injurious to the goal of making “A Better Region 8.”
Your customer representative told me that it would be impossible for KAIT to moderate the Facebook page due to the size of the viewing audience, but this is simply untrue. You don’t have to moderate posts related to every story: you could moderate only those related to highly sensitive topics, such as sexual assault. To extent that such comments are made on stories about sports or weather, you can likely rely on user reports to identify and delete them, but when you run a story that you expect to produce such comments, you can be pro-active by moderating. Even groups will millions of participants choose to moderate Facebook pages. You may need to hire someone to do this job, but it can be done; do not confuse “can’t be done” with “prefer not to invest.”
You could even post such stories and disallow comments simply by using the “Turn off commenting” function available by hovering over the downward arrow in the upper left corner of the story. (If you didn’t already know this, please call your social media coordinator in for a meeting to discuss.) If people then wanted to make inappropriate comments on the story, they could share it on their own page and do so, moving the conversation from the KAIT website. KAIT would then not be associated with the misogyny and promotion of violence against women by viewers such as Mr. Harmon.
Finally, your representative told me that KAIT would not remove the comments due to the First Amendment. As a media organization, you should educate every employee, from the kid delivering newspapers on up, about the First Amendment. Your representative’s comments cheapen the one of our most precious rights. As you know, no one has a right to make any kind of remark at all–whatever its content–on your Facebook page. Everyone has a right to create their own newspaper. If Mr. Harmon wants to make hateful, sexist comments, he can do so all day long in the Harmon Gazette; you are under no obligation to give him the space to do it on your Facebook page.
I am an advocate of more speech to counter hate speech;, in the case of Mr. Harmon’s comments, they advanced no worthy cause, contributed nothing of merit to the conversation, and made you look like fools for tolerating someone who is likely an internet troll. He didn’t support an unrepresented point-of-view that deserves to be understood but advocated accepting illegal violence against women as the cost of getting a degree. You didn’t defend free speech by allowing his comment to stand; you simply demeaned yourself.
Do not be confused: the test of whether you should let a comment stand isn’t whether it is offensive, which is just a way of passing responsibility for the decision to your audience and relies on their particular tastes, which may not be worth protecting. Instead, KAIT needs to discern a way to protect the dignity of readers–not their sense of propriety–to insure that everyone can access your news stories without seeing calls for violence against them or those of their gender.