Earlier this week, veteran CBC News journalist and host Carole MacNeil signed off after a 34-year career with the public broadcaster.
In her closing remarks, which you can watch below, MacNeil thanked her audience and reminded the rest of us what the public expects from journalists: precision, competency, straightforward questions, context.
“You like it when someone is challenged, but not shamed or embarrassed,” MacNeil said of the audience. “You don’t want us to cower in the face of pressure. You want us to work with no fear and no favour.”
But what resonated most for me was MacNeil’s commentary on the state of public discourse, misinformation and hardening attitudes about journalists:
“I believe strongly that as journalists, we are in service to you, the public. But the sand is shifting. You get so much information now. Some of it wrong. Some of it right. Some of it meant to make you angry. Some of it out of context. Some weaponizes you. And some of you try to attack us personally, physically, even when we are doing our job. Not many, but some.”
WATCH | Carole MacNeil says goodbye to viewers in her final CBC broadcast:
Some of these same concerns were behind our decision in June to close comments on our CBC-branded Facebook pages in News, Current Affairs and Local as part of an experiment. We did so because we were seeing an inordinate amount of hate, abuse, misogyny and threats in the comments under our stories. Our story subjects were attacked. Other commenters were attacked. Our journalists were attacked. Misinformation and disinformation were rife.
As a result of this toxicity, we were posting fewer of our stories and videos to Facebook, knowing our story subjects would face certain abuse and particular communities would be targeted. When we did share stories to Facebook, we spent a huge amount of time and effort cleaning up the sludge.
To be clear, we aren’t interested in curtailing genuine criticism of our journalism, which we welcome (you can find plenty of it in the comments on the stories on our news site, which are closely moderated). We’re talking instead about trying to stop, in the online places where we have some control at least, the vile abuse, personal harassment and misinformation that’s so damaging to public discourse.
Comments on website will remain
The experiment has been a positive one. We are now posting more diverse stories than ever to Facebook. We are no longer moderating a space with few controls. The impact on our web traffic has been marginal. The well-being of our staff has improved, according to an internal survey we conducted during the experiment.
Fears we were limiting free speech were unfounded. We saw a surge of comments on our website during the federal election, for example, and our viewers, listeners and readers are free to have their say in many other places, including their personal Facebook pages, on Twitter and through our ombudsman process.
That is why, going forward, comment sections will remain closed on our Facebook pages, with a few exceptions. We will open comments for call-outs to ask specific questions of the audience in order to help us cover stories and issues more comprehensively, and on a few pages that have small but healthy commenting communities. But otherwise, they will remain closed.
Our mission is to develop safer online places where Canadians can have meaningful conversations about the issues of our time and about our journalism; where they can argue and disagree and challenge each other — and us! — without devolving into hate, bigotry or personal abuse. We will also continue doing everything we can to support the mental health and physical well-being of our staff.
Our decision to keep comments closed on our Facebook pages remains. So, too, does our promise to foster respectful commenting and feedback in a myriad of other ways and across our platforms, including in the comment section below this blog, where, as always, I welcome your thoughts and views.