June 12, 2014

Clashes between professional provocateurs and the masses, like the recent criticism that rained down on Washington Post columnist George F. Will over  #survivorprivilege, are on the rise.

See #checkyourprivilege. Remember the reaction to the equally appalling Richard Cohen column that suggested a gag reflex is a normal reaction to learning the white mayor of New York is married to a black woman and they have biracial children.

As more voices crowd the opinion space, some writers might become more shrill and provocative to garner attention. Certainly Will deserved the outrage he received for his recent column where he argues that the increase reported sexual assaults on college campuses is a ploy by women seeking to gain a status of privilege.

The ire over Will’s opinions on rape likely intensified the howling over PostEverything’s guest column two days later suggesting with an incredibly flip headline that marriage is the best way to protect women from violence. That interesting argument had its own guest appearance on #survivorprivilege, particularly when Post editors changed the headline from: “One way to end violence against women? Stop taking lovers and get married” to “One way to end violence against women? Married dads.”

Opinion editors are looking for the sweet spot in social debate. The hashtag that’s not a meme. Passion, not poison. Undershoot that sweet spot and no one notices. Overshoot it and no one actually reads the essay. Instead they read those ridiculing the essay. As a democracy, we’re probably better for it when opinion writers and editors overshoot. Unless we get to a point where most people are tuning out most conversations to avoid the vitriol.

So what’s an opinion editor to do to increase the chances that an idea will land in the space of vigorous debate, but fall short of ridicule? Here are nine best practices for publishing provocative pieces on polarized issues.

  • Watch the flippancy, especially in headlines. It implies a lack of respect for those on the other side of the debate. When issues are highly polarized, go for a straight, descriptive headline. Clever headlines may gain traction on social media, but when they cause folks to debate your opinions without reading them, they do more harm than good.
  • Jump into the stream and defend the decision to publish when the comments take off. That may be on Twitter or Facebook or in a comments section.  You don’t have to respond to every knucklehead out there. But when someone asks a rational question, answer it. You’ll elevate the sophistication of the debate and increase respect for your publication as an idea broker.
  • Curate the best of your critics and follow up. Dialogue implies back and forth, give and take. When people feel ignored or dismissed, they often get louder. Particularly when things start to get a bit uncivil, sometimes a few civil voices can refocus a conversation.
  • Ask genuine questions of those who oppose a point of view. When you invite others to share their experiences or their views in response to a piece they disagree with, you indicate a sportsman-like approach to the debate, rather than a take-no-prisoners battle.
  • That said, avoid dialogue with trolls and idiots. A good rule of thumb on Twitter or in the comments section is to respond to civil questions the first time you hear them, then move on.
  • Recognize and acknowledge the conversation you are in. If you are merely using a hashtag to introduce a new idea, be honest about that.
  • Offer support to the writers and editors who throw themselves out there. We live in a democracy where unpopular ideas sometimes emerge as good ones decades later. We depend on people to challenge conventional thinking.
  • Offer a diversity of opinions. You don’t necessarily have to do it all on the same day. And it won’t buy you credibility with everyone. But if over time, you can demonstrate provocative, well-written, original opinions across a wide spectrum, your audience will keep coming back.
  • Admit it and fix it when you make a mistake, whether it was a miscalculation in tone or a misinterpretation of data. No sense handing people the stick to beat you with.
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Kelly McBride is a writer, teacher and one of the country’s leading voices when it comes to media ethics. She has been on the faculty…
Kelly McBride

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