Press Matters: Assessing the news value of social media comments

Naiyana Williams was a freshman in our Journalism & Communication program at duPont Manual High School when her father was murdered in 2007.

Upon her return to school, she noticed local news organizations’ online coverage of her father’s death, along with the comments now found at the bottom of almost every news article. Williams said she was blindsided by an array of racially inflammatory remarks directed at those involved in the crime — including the victim, her father.

At the time, she was 14.

“It was devastating. I cried,” Williams says. “I was in class, doing well, and saw that and completely broke down. I was sent to my counselor’s office for the rest of the day.”

social-media-400854_640Never read the comments,” saner online voices frequently tell us, and we remind ourselves of this advice when tempted to delve into the potentially disgusting online dialogue happening beneath any article on a hot-button issue.

Perhaps because online comments sometimes tend toward bottom-scraping insults, there is a growing trend within workplace environments and on the Internet itself toward holding social media users accountable for violent, racist or inappropriate posts:

  • A U of L student’s hijack of her friend’s Twitter account led to panic and a university investigation.
  • A Louisville high school student’s Purge hoax got him kicked off the football team.
  • A Republican staffer’s jab at Obama’s daughters led to her resignation.
  • A suburban Missouri police department suspended a police officer for making derogatory comments about Ferguson protesters.
  • A Texas school district fired a high school teacher for her racially inflammatory tweets.
  • A New York fire department lieutenant quit his job after journalists publicized his racially inflammatory tweets.
  • A Pennsylvania high school counselor blamed her son for her post threatening to shoot protesters.
  • A Florida college professor resigned after posting homophobic and anti-Muslim comments on Facebook.
  • A California police officer is under review after several tweets critical of Ferguson protesters.

On Tuesday, Dec. 2, Insider Louisville published an article about a controversial Facebook post by Renea Rainey, a Norton Healthcare employee. Rainey, an office manager at an urgent care center, called for live rounds of ammunition to be used on Ferguson protesters, whom she called “animals” and “cockroaches.” Local activists shared the post on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, tagging Norton’s social media accounts to bring the post to the company’s attention.

It was a story that generated considerable attention. While Editorial Director Sarah Kelley says Insider doesn’t typically reveal the total hit count of articles, the article garnered over 3,000 likes on Facebook and was shortly followed by stories about the post from other outlets, including The Courier-Journal and Reuters.

Reaction was mixed, with Louisvillians generally responding in support of holding social media users publicly accountable for posts, or as critical of the article’s perceived lack of news value.

What constitutes news value is a debatable topic. Journalism educators sometimes reference lists like this decades-old list of commonly practiced Western news values, but new technology and the resulting shifts in news models are challenging the pedagogy.

Regardless, by many standards, singling out social media posts by private citizens wouldn’t meet standards of newsworthiness because they have no impact on the larger community. The Norton employee’s post on its own does not, in our opinion, qualify as newsworthy — social media is flooded with comments just as bad as Rainey’s or worse, and none of those comments deserve their own news stories.

Likewise, Amanda Crawford, who teaches media ethics at WKU, says that the original Facebook post calling for live rounds to be used against Ferguson protesters was not newsworthy and would be only if Rainey was “prominent or in a position of authority.”

However, Crawford says the actions following the post justified the Insider story.

“I believe it rose to newsworthiness when the post was targeted by activists and shared hundreds of times on social media, eventually garnering responses from her employer,” says Crawford, referring to Norton’s public response on Twitter.

With more than 12,000 employees, Norton is one of the region’s largest employers. Its employment policies and decisions clearly have an impact on a significant portion of the Louisville news media audience. The story was newsworthy for that reason alone, and even more so once Norton announced the woman had been fired.

In addition, says Crawford, the story was newsworthy because it “reflected a trend of activists targeting individuals for offensive remarks and bringing them to the attention of employers,” as shown in the above list of examples.

“Even before she was fired, this incident became part of that trend because she was targeted,” says Crawford.


An example of Norton’s public response

Additionally, Insider Louisville reporter David Serchuk didn’t contact Norton until Dec. 1, three days after Norton publicly said they were “addressing the situation.” At that point, the question of whether the company was merely appeasing activists or truly addressing the issue was a legitimate one for journalists to ask on behalf of the community. After all, when a large, influential corporation promises public accountability, watchdog journalists certainly ought to follow up on those promises.

Furthermore, Norton’s chief communication officer, Thomas Johnson, told us the process that would eventually result in Rainey’s termination was already underway when the IL article was published. “The publication of the article was incidental to the process,” Johnson said, and had no influence on Norton’s decision.

Set aside the question of newsworthiness and the role of watchdog journalism for a moment to consider that many Internet users who are not public figures view social media as a largely self-contained space where they, along with all of their friends and family, are both performers and audience members. Indeed, setting up a Facebook account means answering numerous personal questions — including identifying workplaces past and present — that many people may do without considering the ramifications of sharing so much information.

Certainly this exposure could have a chilling effect on comments by social media users who share Rainey’s extremist viewpoints. But some of the community was rattled by the impact of large media platforms exposing single individuals on social media, even when finding Rainey’s actual comments reprehensible.

The headline, “Racist message posted on Facebook page of Norton Healthcare office manager,” may have raised red flags for readers concerned about their social media conversations becoming casual media fodder. The first paragraph also implied the post itself held the most news value:

“A racist message was posted on the Facebook page of an office manager for Norton Healthcare, presumably in response to the protests in Ferguson, Mo., and the update subsequently was shared hundreds of times via social media.”

Six paragraphs later, readers learn that Norton was formally dealing with the situation — a fact that clearly elevates the story’s newsworthiness.

Activist Jaison Gardner, who saw Rainey’s screenshot post being circulated on social media and brought it to the attention of Norton Healthcare through Twitter, appreciates the article for “bringing light to such things when folks think we’re so post-racial in Louisville.” Nonetheless, Gardner, who also offers social commentary via the WFPL Strange Fruit podcast and a column at LEO, suggests another timely angle.

“Perhaps a better story would have been that the power of community building and community organizing and new media, especially black Twitter and Facebook, caused a company to act,” Gardner said.

That’s a national trend worth exploring and a dialogue worth promoting.

Meanwhile, social media commenters continue throwing gasoline on the fires of public controversy, and these conflagrations aren’t something we can easily ignore. After all, seven years later, our former student Naiyana Williams still remembers how strangers’ comments amplified her grief as a daughter. She points out that public repercussions for commenters like Rainey are another byproduct of protected speech — and a natural consequence for making the discourse so threatening to people who share these online spaces.

“We all know the power of free speech,” she says. “And (the Internet) is a public place. You’re not protected. If that person were to say those words to someone’s face, what protection would you have then?”


  • Gasface to the Courier-Journal for running a gun sale ad on top of their Sunday story about police shootings.
  • On the other hand, garland to the Courier-Journal for the prompt apology and promised changes to their processes. In a way, it’s good to know the wall of separation between the C-J’s advertising and reporting is so strong that such an error could occur, but they are correct to take steps to avoid future embarrassment.

This is the second media critique co-authors (and husband and wife) James Miller and Liz Palmer have penned for Insider Louisville. Going forward, the pair will cover local media — including IL — on a regular basis.