Everyone has an opinion. And you know what they say about opinions — everyone has one (or something like that). Well before the dawn of social media platforms, people could disagree — often over a beer or beverage of choice. And while neither party might walk away with a reformed outlook, a certain degree of mutual respect could often be achieved through archaic and forgotten courtesies like eye contact and respectful dialogue.
Those days are long behind us. The 24-hour rule has been replaced by the 24-second rule. Some of the most vile and nasty dialogue ever spewed can be found in the comments section of almost any social media post that doesn’t align with someone else’s worldview. Much like those who come unglued in private fits of road rage, the perpetrators and practitioners of online slander would seldom dare repeat their disparaging slights in the presence of an actual human.
Because of this, newspapers and periodicals offer op-ed and opinion pieces as an essential alternative to online anonymity. For every pretend lawyer and Google MD wannabe doctor trolling social media posts, op-ed pieces (by design) attract those willing to conduct actual research, examine various sides of an issue and — most of all — measure the accuracy and power behind their words.
At the Keys Weekly, we consciously work to avoid sensationalized journalism. Over the past few weeks, we chose to run two opposing op-ed pieces on the continuing cruise ship debate here in Key West. (The term “op-ed” relates to the placement of such an opinion piece — opposite the editorial — and is typically authored by someone not associated with the newspaper’s editorial board.)
The idea was to allow respected members from opposing sides of the debate an opportunity to voice their position. The intended outcome was to avoid sensationalism and elicit thought (and possibly some compromise) within the opposing factions.
However, some mistakes were made, unfortunately, all of them by me (the publisher and partner here at the Weekly). First, we allowed one side of the cruise ship debate to fire the first shot with a full-page op-ed. A week later we allowed the opposition —with a full seven days to strategize — to counter. Not only that, no parameters were shared with either respected author on the guidelines and policies within our opinion pieces.
After each piece was published, I received emails and calls from readers who called me an array of epithets. Labels like “traitor,” “sellout” and “racist” were all thrown at me for publishing opinions that represented opposing sides of the debate. And while the racist remark was later retracted (that friend apologized), I sadly realized our op-ed platform was a not-too-distant cry from the social media paradigms of the “tit for tat” warfare I was attempting to break free of.
I’ve been called many things — some deservingly, I’ll admit. And other times it simply comes with the territory. In this business, it helps to have an extra layer of Kevlar strapped securely over your heart and soul. And while the cruise ship issue will continue to be a contentious hot-button debate in our community, the one label I hope always to avoid is “unfair.” Moving forward, we will continue to offer a balanced dais for dialogue and debate, with a few hard-knock caveats picked up over the past few weeks.
For starters, we will extend an invitation to counter each and every op-ed within the same issue or paper — rather than affording the opposition a potential straw target to pick apart. In addition, we will demand edits or omissions for any open attacks on personal names, referenced businesses or organizations not relevant to the theme or spirit of the message.
After all, I whole-heartedly believe the majority of Keys residents are far better than the digital trolls who thrive on the divisive temperament of our nation. And while we may disagree from time to time here at home, the majority of residents share a passionate vision for the vitality and future of the Keys.
Even within One Human Family we are allowed to disagree. The difference is whether we engage in productive dialogue or hit the proverbial “unfriend” button on anyone that opposes our agenda. Don’t be fooled into the recent paradox of ultimatums. It is OK (and sometimes healthy) to agree to disagree — especially over a beer.