Opinion, WVPA Sharing

Opinion: Angry phone call underscores problem with current social culture

From The Bluefield Daily Telegraph: 

My ears are burning from the profanity-laden tirade on the other end of the phone line. The caller is not just angry, but enraged. The F-word punctuates most sentences — as an adjective and a verb.

The caller is upset about a story in the day’s newspaper. As I try to ask for specifics about any errors in the article, I am treated to a shrill scream: “It’s wrong! It’s all (insert F-bomb here) wrong!”

I quickly realize the caller, who refuses to provide a name, is a friend or family member of an individual recently charged with a crime. A good guess is that she believes he is innocent.

We have received no other calls from individuals or officials involved in the case, so my editor’s intuition tells me the story is factual.

The phone call, I believe, is a result of raw emotion from someone livid about the circumstances of an alleged crime — the arrest, the hearing and the subsequent news report.

•••

Minutes into the conversation, I chastise the caller about her language. I warn that I will hang up if the profanity continues.

“I will call back!” she screams. “I will keep (insert F-bomb here) calling back!”

At this point, the telephone handset is many inches away from my ear. The caller’s loud, reverberating threats are echoing through my office and into the newsroom.

I now have a decision to make: hang up, and potentially disrupt the office with continued calls for the rest of the afternoon, or hold on and let her get it out of her system.

I choose the latter, and prepare for a volley of insults, curse words and veiled implications of potential harm.

•••

We are no stranger to anger in the newsroom.

Often, our job involves us covering stories in which individuals and families are at a low and emotional point in their lives. As we document the news story, they are feeling the pain.

We try our best to be polite and empathetic to all involved — victims, suspects and family members. But that doesn’t always lessen the rage when a story shows up in black and white and online.

Sometimes they need an outlet for their frustration. We are an easy phone call away.

•••

In this day and age, social media plays a big factor in the reporting of news. Stories are not just published in the newspaper’s online and print editions, they are also shared on Facebook and Twitter. These social media links can draw a large readership, and subsequent commentary.

A year or so ago, I broke a significant story about an unusual child abuse case. The day the story was published, my email and phone line lit up with angry messages from family members.

As usual, I was called a plethora of names due to my decision to write and print the story. On the unusual side, I was actually threatened by an underage teenager. (Usually my haters are at least 21 and above.)

This particular case also spurred a memorable telephone conversation.

A family member of the suspect who was upset at the coverage called to complain. She did not yell (and that was much appreciated), but she wanted to know why we reported it. I carefully explained the process of news gathering, and the public’s right to know when an alleged crime has been committed.

She digested the information, then emotionally responded: “OK, I understand why you had to put it in the paper … but did you have to post it on Facebook?!”

•••

The friend of the recent suspect is still on the line and continuing her verbal assault. I listen patiently, while mentally trying to keep up with the number of times the F-word has been dropped during the 10-minute conversation.

By far, it’s a new newsroom record.

I also continue to calmly ask about specific errors in the story. The response is more vague assertions laced with profanity that would make a sailor blush. I am now confident the article is accurate, and that the anger stems from a broader source.

Sometimes it’s easier for friends and loved ones to lash out at the communicator of news than those at the heart of it.

•••

Hanging up the phone, I wonder if I should be worried.

The rage exhibited during the telephone call provides me a better understanding of our current culture. Some people are angry, but there is no filter — no borders, or lessons on social decorum to give them an understanding of the rights and wrongs of appropriate social interaction.

Feel it. Say it. Type it. Post it.

It is, indeed, a brave new world. And a frightening one.

Samantha Perry is editor of the Daily Telegraph. Contact her at [email protected]. Follow her @BDTPerry.

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