They’ve become known as the keyboard warriors.
They stay the right side of trolling, but they’re adept at getting on the wrong side of journalists.
There are few things guaranteed to get under the skin of journalists more than the casual, kneejerk criticism of an online reader.
Sometimes the comments can be all the more painful and wounding because there is a grain of truth in them.
Perhaps the criticism may reflect our own concerns over resourcing, copytasting or editorial priorities.
At other times, the critic may be utterly and completely unfair, out of order and downright offensive.
Whatever the situation, the indignation can burn.
There are two clear schools of thought on general online criticism – as opposed to the very specific and polite pointing-out of inaccuracies that can easily be acknowledged and corrected.
There are some journalists who firmly believe that engaging with critics is a waste of time which only serves to encourage the flow of abuse, giving those keyboard warriors something to bite (or bash) on.
It’s an understandable stance, and one undoubtedly based on bitter experience.
But my preference has always been to try to find ways of engaging with people who think we’ve got it wrong.
I’ve scored a few victories in changing hearts and minds over the years over issues from our coverage of a drink-drive death inquest to the way we covered major transport controversies.
You can’t please all the people, and there will be some with closed minds who are never going to listen.
But proving there’s a real – and thinking – human being behind the sometimes anonymous web content is always a worthwhile exercise.
These are my tips for online engagement:
- Admit mistakes and put them right
- Stress you are all human beings, trying to do the best you can
- Keep your powder dry – don’t bite every time
- Thank people genuinely for their views
- Outline the resourcing realities of life
- Explain decisions on coverage and angles
- Count to ten before hitting send
My friends at the Western Gazette in Yeovil rightly thought it best to hit back at criticism of their decision to use a picture of an overturned car on their website.
It’s the sort of crash that local media organisations have been covering responsibly and sensitively for decades, but it pushed the wrong buttons for someone.
Often, a basic misunderstanding of the way legal systems work can get those keyboards pounding.
So it can be our duty to point out our rights and responsibilities – and our ethical touchstones – to generations left cold by their citizenship and civics lessons.
There hasn’t been any fresh criticism of the Western Gazette on its Facebook page, and the newsdesk comment has attracted more likes than the attack which prompted it.
In the war of the keyboards, I think we can count that as a bit of a victory.