5.3 3. Be Fair and Civil

Fairness is a broader concept than accuracy or thoroughness. It encompasses several related notions:

  • Even if you are coming at something from a specific bias or world view, you can be fair to those who disagree with you by incorporating their views into your own work, even if simply to explain why you’re right and they’re wrong.
  • Recognize that you can’t be perfectly fair, and that people will hear what you’ve said through the prisms of their own world views. It’s still worth trying.
  • You can extend the principle of fairness by inviting others to join the conversation after publication.
  • You can stress civility, moreover, as the guiding principle for the conversation.

Why bother, especially if you don’t feel others are likely to reciprocate?

First, it’s just the the right way to do things. You want other people to deal with you in a fair way, especially when someone is criticizing what you’ve said or done. Do the same for them, and maybe they will take a similar approach even if they haven’t before.

Second, it pays back tactically in audience trust. The people who read or hear your work will feel cheated if you slant the facts or present opposing opinions disingenuously. Your work will be suspect once they realize what you’ve done—and many eventually will.

How can you be fair? Beyond the Golden Rule notion of treating people as you’d want to be treated, you can ensure that you offer a place for people to reply to what you (and your commenters) have posted. You can insist on civility both in your work and in the comments.

My rule when hosting an online community is that participants will be civil with each other even if we disagree on the issues. This can break down when someone joins a conversation under false pretenses. These can include some obvious behaviors, and others that are more subtle. Here are examples of people to watch out for:

  • Someone who is paid by some industry group or has an interest in its success, but who chimes in with opinions about matters of direct concern to the industry without revealing that connection or bias.
  • Someone with ideological beliefs that influence his or her position in ways that go beyond a consideration of the facts and issues directly relevant to the position, but who presents the opinion as just the result of reasoning.
  • Someone who has a history of unethically (perhaps even illegally) abusing the system in which he or she is participating for personal gain.

It’s important to expose the connections, if you detect them, while taking care that the exposé is not an ad hominem attack. Creating and sustaining a healthy online community is hard work, as I’ll discuss in the next chapter, but it’s essential.

Another essential way to be fair is to use links. Point to a variety of material other than your own, to support what you’ve said and to offer varying perspectives.

Most of all, fairness requires that you listen carefully to what people are saying. Journalism is evolving from a lecture to a conversation we can all be part of, and the first rule of good conversation is to listen.

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