Commenting online? Great. But remember who may be reading

Imagine a family in mourning. A beloved 12-year-old child — their daughter, granddaughter, sister, cousin — has just died in a tragic accident. What kind of person would walk up to one of them and belittle their religious faith or condemn their circumstances?

The answer: A certain kind of person who comments on social media and on online news stories.

Such people are, let’s acknowledge from the outset, a small fraction compared to those who react online with thoughtful compassion to the sadness and heartbreak that are the nature of some news stories. But they are substantial enough in numbers that they need to be watched out for, and, it’s a sad commentary on the medium that whenever certain types of stories break, our online editors know they have to be especially vigilant to watch out for them.

It may be a family tragedy like that which took the life of a little Arlington Heights girl this week. It may be a fatal car crash under unusual circumstances. It may be a domestic situation gone sour enough to reach the newspaper. Whatever the tragedy, it seems someone out there will be moved to show off his or her wit with a display of rank sarcasm. Our digital editors watch for these, and remove them when they find them.

Their mission is not just a matter of decorum. They aren’t simply striving to protect the general public from society’s boors, who, we must sadly also acknowledge, have a constitutional right to be boors. But they also have an objective that is void of dogma or social consideration. It is merely humane, the awareness that family, friends and loved ones who are left to make sense of the incomprehensible at a time of unspeakable loss may see or learn of someone callously making light of their suffering or using it to advance some personal agenda.

This is a realization we wish more online commenters would consider. Your words online don’t go out to some faceless and impersonal void. They touch real people, your friends and neighbors, even people you don’t know but otherwise would treat fondly and generously without ever caring about their political, social or religious beliefs.

Raymond Lee is an elder in the Arlington Heights Korean Christian church whose pastor’s daughter died this week when a snow fort she was building collapsed. He said in a Daily Herald story Wednesday that the outpouring for the pastor’s family has been “overwhelming,” The story, he said, “strikes a chord with people.”

Most people, anyway.

We hope we managed to remove from our online comments a particularly insensitive remark about the girl’s death before anyone close to her saw it. We hope that in their time of grief, the family continues to be overwhelmed by the warmth and support of a compassionate and loving community.

And we hope that anytime you are moved to comment on a news story online, you will consider the impact your remarks will have on every person reading them, especially the people most directly involved.

In a New Year’s greeting for our Saturday Soapbox a few weeks ago, Digital Engagement Editor Kelly Vold, one of the chief gatekeepers watching for such comments, offered this wish:

“In the new year as you comment on social media, ask yourself, ‘Would I say this to a person’s face?’ If the answer is no, consider more kindness on Facebook, Twitter and other social platforms. Sure, it’s fine to disagree, but we can do it without the name calling, insults and attacks that we see too much of from behind a phone or laptop.”

Comment. Engage. Express yourself. Yes, do all these.

But, please, keep Vold’s New Year’s thought in mind. Remember who may be reading.