ITHACA, N.Y — It’s been almost two years since former Ithaca Voice editor Jeff Stein issued a challenge to our readers.

A protest and sit-in-style rally caused high tensions in Ithaca as people objected to the fatal treatment of Freddie Gray by Baltimore police officers. Gray, a black man, went into a coma while be transported in a police van for allegedly illegally possessing a switchblade. He died from severe neck injuries after he was shackled and handcuffed in the van but not buckled up. Nobody was convicted of wrongdoing for Gray’s death.
In Ithaca, protesters laid along North Aurora Street holding protest signs and crosses over their bodies.
The ensuing coverage sparked online comments from people threatening to kill police officers and protesters. Other comments threatened violence against anyone with opposing viewpoints.
The next day, Jeff issued the following statement in an editorial:

But I didn’t get here by refusing to take risks. So, I’m issuing the following challenge: I dare the Ithaca Voice commenters — at least the ones who so stridently made their views known last night — to try harder, and think more critically, and make an attempt at empathy, before calling huge numbers of complete strangers evil.

Is this a hopelessly naive request? Maybe. But I fail to see why we as a society have reporters at all but precisely to make such calls to action.

Journalists labor to show the world as it is. If readers are interested in only seeing what they want to see, why bother to do so at all? Why provide a forum for community discussion if it will simply be hijacked by the loudest voices in the room? (And if this is this case, why shouldn’t I find a profession that, you know, actually pays well?)

A few Ithaca Voice readers did leave insightful, thoughtful comments last night. In doing so, they showed the potential for a medium that fosters substantive debates about our city’s most important issues. But judging from last night, we still have far — very far — to go before that ideal is realized.

I’m sad to say that since then, comments on The Ithaca Voice social media have only gotten worse, especially since the presidential election.

Related — Editorial: Ithaca Voice editor challenges Facebook commenters to try harder

There is a flame war against literally everybody, though, minorities historically get the worst of it: immigrants, the LGBTQ community, anybody not white, poor people, people who rely on public assistance. But anybody is subject to the cruelty and bullying from others online

The left is branded as whiny, jobless snowflakes. Anyone who sits, even fractionally, to the right of the extreme left is branded as an evil, racist degenerate. And we all know these things aren’t true for most people.

If Jeff was naive for initially proposing the challenge for civil public discourse, then I’m just as naive for reissuing it.

But like my good friend, I also see hope for this community. Maybe some of you can see it with me.

Featured photo by Nicholas Bogel-Burroughs/The Ithaca Voice

Jolene Almendarez

Jolene Almendarez is Managing Editor at The Ithaca Voice. She can be reached at jalmendarez@ithacavoice.com; you can learn more about her at the links in the top right of this box.