The tragic death of 88-year-old Delbert Belton this week is yet another reminder of how violent living in America can be these days.
Unfortunately, the fatal beating suffered by Belton also brings out the worst in human nature. Belton was white. The two juveniles accused of assaulting him are black. The knee-jerk reaction by some in our midst to immediately assume the dual mantle of judge and jury is not uncommon in this day of saturation coverage by the media, nor is the no-holds-barred nature of discourse found in comments posted on public websites.
The case has attracted the attention of CNN, CBS and Fox News, and has sparked a relentless stream of comments via social media. The comments on our website, www.spokesman.com, began appearing quickly after the news broke of the fatal assault on Belton. Those comments quickly turned into an ugly display of stereotypes regarding blacks, comparisons to the George Zimmerman-Trayvon Martin case and blame directed at President Barack Obama.
From time to time, we shut down the commenting process on developing news stories because the anonymous comments rapidly turn vile, personal and irrational. Early Thursday evening, we shut off the comment function for the Belton story because of the hateful nature of so many comments. We kept them closed until Saturday afternoon, when we opened the most recent story to comments, monitoring them closely to weed out racist rants and incivility.
If critics want to accuse us of censorship, I remind them that we review and make decisions every day on stories, photographs and headlines for accuracy, context, clarity and conventional news standards. It’s called editing, not censorship. Those who disagree are free to comment on other websites or even to create their own.
Soon after news broke on the case, the Spokane Police Department issued descriptions of two suspects. The descriptions included the detail that the suspects are black. A reader posted a comment asking why we chose to identify the suspects’ race, which prompted a lively back-and-forth among commenters. Our policy on using race as an identifier has been consistent in recent years. If the race of a suspect or missing person is listed by law enforcement authorities in an attempt to provide basic keys to identification, we use it. Once a suspect is arrested and charged, we cease using the racial identifier unless police believe a crime was motivated in part by racial hate. Our policy is consistent with that of the Associated Press and other news organizations.
We have had a lot of discussion lately in our newsroom about the value of allowing comments on our stories and we are considering a number of options to help improve the level of public discourse on our website. We think it is important for newspaper readers and others to have the chance to engage in discussions about public life and events in our region, but we see little value in hosting a verbal free-for-all in which the thread of conversation is hijacked by online trolls who simply want to antagonize others and push their disparate agendas and conspiracy theories. Industry research shows that a very small percentage of a website’s audience participates in commenting, but a small group contributes the vast majority of comment traffic by commenting multiple times.
Commenters frequently show no mercy, commenting inappropriately even on basic stories about victims of fatalities or random violence. For family members, the pain surely increases over the loss of a loved one when anonymous voices feel compelled to compound the tragedy by posting insensitive comments. In several instances, we’ve called a halt to the comment string out of respect for family members. I anticipate we will be doing more of that in the future.
I’m not going to wade into the issue of race in the Belton case at this time. All I will offer for now is that in 40 years of being a newspaper journalist, I’ve come to believe that race has been and always will be the defining issue in this country. I urge readers and the community to let justice run its course in this case. Despite what some of our online critics have already suggested, we don’t intend to ignore further developments in this case. We’ll continue to gather facts and present what we know.
Police Chief Frank Straub told reporters on Friday that “there is no indication there is any racial motivation whatsoever.” The community wants and deserves certainty on that issue, and we plan to keep pursuing the facts for our news reporting as the case unfolds.