I try not to read the comments on stories on news websites. They break my heart, disgust me and shock me with their ignorance in equal measure. So I stayed away from yesterday’s story about Scott Morrison’s repulsive whinge about the funerals for the people who died in the Christmas Island boat tragedy. Oh, won’t somebody think of the taxpayers. I reckon the cost of flying 21 asylum seekers to Sydney for the funerals – a cost Morrison found so objectionable – would be about the same as it cost for him to walk the Kokoda Trail in 2009. Bet we paid for that too.
And today Morrison says he “could have chosen his words better”. Clearly he’s been learning from Tony Abbott – throw a bomb of hideousness into the public sphere and then back away and say that “some people” (feminists/lefties/do-gooders – ie, people who aren’t like the rest of “us”) took it the wrong way. “Ohhh, when I said we shouldn’t pay for the flights, I didn’t mean we shouldn’t pay for the flights.”
Anyway, the thing with comments on news websites is that for all the ones that are eyewateringly offensive, there are many more that can’t be published. That are illegal to publish. Thousands of them. Usually filled with typos and more bile than a gallbladder.
Daniel Scoullar has a piece in Online Opinion about how many comments on The Age website are “factually incorrect and showed a poor understanding of how the system works”.
He writes that the same attitudes can be seen in comments on news stories about “other socially disadvantaged groups such as single mothers, refugees, people who are homeless, Indigenous Australians and the unemployed”.
I’ll go further than Scoullar and say the comments these news stories reveal ignorance and a profound mean-spiritedness.
The Daily Telegraph had a classic example yesterday: Asylum seekers’ $2.5 million hotel bill. I’m going to look at just one comment that sums up the ignorance and mean-spiritedness:
Not Happy Natalie of SA Posted at 9:59 AM
Easy sollution.It would be cheaper to send them back home…If they had the money in the 1st place to come here,then years down the track they go back and visit relative’s.They can afford to go and stay back home.Its about time this government stop wasting all this money on these people and start thinking about our own.Here in SA we have a centre in the Adelaide Hills where these “people” were givin free housing/electricity/water/food/clothing.FREE SCHOOLING for the children.Its getting out of hand.Send these people back home….Isnt that what happened a few years ago…Or has everyone forgotten that?Enough is enough.
These “people”. That is so fucking offensive, Not Happy Natalie of SA. Also, learn how to use punctuation. And how to spell.
The idea that just because someone paid to get here, they aren’t a genuine refugee doesn’t make any sense. If we had an extremely conservative Government that cracked down on dissent – say, if we had Tony Abbott and Scott Morrison in charge – then as an opinionated feminist lefty journo and academic, I’d be on The List. My passport would probably be cancelled (and let’s not forget that if a Government is punishing dissenters, they certainly won’t be issuing passports and visas) so of course I’d pay a smuggler to get me out of here. But logic ain’t a strong point with the ignorant.
Part of the blame for this lies with the mainstream media. We report every boat arrival but don’t include any facts about the situation. Facts like how the vast majority of asylum seekers who arrive by boat are found to be genuine refugees, and that 96-99 per cent of asylum seekers arrive by plane. A few quotes from the Government and the Opposition does not make a balanced story.
But this post is about credibility. I don’t know about you, but I judge a news website by the quality of its news stories and the quality of the reader comments. If all the reader comments parrot the asylum seeker myths about dole bludging terrorists who are after our jobs (again, logic fail), then that website loses credibility.
Eun-Ju Lee and Yoon Jae Jang (2010) looked at how the availability of other readers’ reactions to a story influenced how people thought about that story. They found that “people no longer inferred the general opinion climate from the news position but from other readers’ postings,” (p. 843). They also found that people who are “less motivated for effortful cognitive activities” (p. 843) – which I think is my new favourite insult – tend to align their opinions with those reader comments. And that scares the hell out of me.
Lee, E-J. and Jang, Y J (2010), ‘What do others’ reactions to news on internet portal sites tell us? Effects of presentation format and readers’ need for cognition on reality perception’, Communication Research, vol. 37, no. 6, pp. 825-846.
Phillips, J. (2011), ‘Asylum seekers and refugees: what are the facts?’, Background note, Parliamentary Library, Canberra. Available online: http://www.aph.gov.au/library/pubs/bn/sp/AsylumFacts.pdf