CathBlog - Civility in online discussion



A couple of weeks ago, I enjoyed one of the perks of my job here at Church Resources. I had a chatty, fascinating lunch with Father Richard Leonard SJ. 

Richard, as many of you will know, is director of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting, and is the source from which CathNews acquires its film reviews – and he is also a welcome guest speaker at conferences around the world.

He had just been away in Rome, teaching, and had come back through Ireland and the US, on an author tour for his latest book, Where the Hell is God? Richard was quietly pleased because his book, which has been very well-received critically, was a sell-out in Ireland. On top of that, he was on the same program in Dublin as The Chieftains!

But in between the general chat, he made an observation about the CathNews discussion boards. Their overhaul had made them a little quieter, he noted, but in the end that was a good thing. They would rebuild, given time. And then he went on to mention one of the former regular posters who no longer appears – TJ Lawson.

I still miss TJ, too, but he failed to abide by the protocols of the board – the ones about name, email address and telephone number to establish identity. While I was never able to establish that his name was sound, the email address was good. Then I discovered when I rang the mobile number TJ had given me that I was speaking to a rather puzzled Portuguese person. TJ had to go.

A lot of people have objected to the identifiers on the board but they are necessary because I want people to stand up for their comments, not hide in a coward’s castle of anonymity. Some are still trying to get away with it, and after having written to them several times without result, I have begun to delete their posts. I regret the effort wasted – and the ire raised among some readers who considered it a terrible invasion of privacy.

There are some posters who have given up and gone away this year, including Michael Barnard. I had a real struggle on my hands trying to get ‘Michael’ to use his proper name – that degenerated into a discussion about how dare I try to tell him what his real name was. So then he started to post under RMBH and was outed by one of the other regular posters. The last email I had from him seemed to indicate that the change of editorial policy and editors at CathNews could not come quickly enough.

So between TJ Lawson and RMBH, the discussion boards seem to have developed a pretty even-handed approach, one which suits neither the more liberal nor the more conservative elements among the poster. I like to think of that as a win for the vast majority of CathNews Subscribers and readers.

Certain stories in CathNews attracted a lot of interest during the year.  Among the most commented was the question of sexual abuse in the Church. The heartfelt responses showed how deeply the members of the Body of Christ felt the crisis, and how painful the process has been for everyone involved. Sadly, it also provided an opportunity for some people just to get into Church-bashing mode, and pursue their own, narrow agendas. 

There were, however, many smaller good news stories for the Church this year reported on CathNews – and then there was the great, big, good news stories for the decade. The canonisation of Mary MacKillop provided a wealth of material and wonderful enrichment for our CathNews family. The elements – the Flickr Gallery, the blogs, the spirituality capsules based on St Mary’s life – were all commented on, as were Reflections by some of Australia’s leading churchmen. Father Frank Brennan SJ, who blogged for CathNews from Rome, commented on that of the Cardinal of Sydney, George Pell, after the canonisation: ‘What a fine reflection from our Cardinal Archbishop. Yesterday was a great day for the Australian Church.’

We also surveyed our readers to see what they liked best about the CathNews special coverage of the Canonisation in October: ‘I am not from Australia or from that part of the world. I was really surprised by the number of civil leaders who joined in the celebrations and publicity. It also gave me a better perspective on the Australian Church. I have friends among the Josephites, so I was delighted to be able to follow it all.’

So while some of the former CathNews commentators have withdrawn from the field – unable to abide by the requirements not to personally attack others or be more forthcoming about who they are and so reveal what their agendas might be – others have joined the ranks of the CathNews discussion boarders. From liberal and conservative ranks, they are contributing to the vigour and the balance of the boards – and for that I am really grateful.  I am looking forward to more, vigorous debate of issues and ideas in the New Year.

But.... Like Father Richard, I miss some of the former correspondents who no longer come to CathNews. But I value the new civility more.

Christine HoganChristine Hogan is the Publisher at Church Resources and moderates the wild west of the discussion boards of CathNews.

Disclaimer: CathBlog is an extension of CathNews story feedback. It is intended to promote discussion and debate among the subscribers to CathNews and the readers of the website. The opinions expressed in CathBlog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the members of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference or of Church Resources.

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