Nasty reader comments: two approaches

2 Jan

I think it’s fair to say a lot of journalists struggle with the value of allowing anonymous* comments on news stories. Recently, two newspaper websites took two different kind of actions in an attempt to clean things up.

At the end of November, Cleveland.com explained why it was no longer allowing comments on Tamir Rice stories (except in its opinion section).

I agree with author Chris Quinn’s reasoning for doing so: The sheer volume of hateful comments was just too much to keep up with. In these days of limited newsroom resources, moderating a large volume of comments just doesn’t make the cut. At The Seattle Times, we don’t allow comments on some stories simply because they know they will be a pain to moderate. There are other reasons why we pre-close threads, such as wanting to protect vulnerable story subjects.

Here’s one thing I try to think through when deciding whether a particular story should have open commenting: What is the desired outcome of the commenting? In most cases this is an easy question to answer. You want people to share their thoughts and continue the conversation about the topic of the story in a civilized way. Great example of this: the comments on The Times’ recent story on Warren Buffett’s mobile-home empire.

For some stories though, it’s hard to visualize a constructive outcome of reader discussion. Example: Given the heightened tensions at the moment, is there really a possibility of reasonable discussion and education about the plight of Somali immigrants in Seattle? We thought not.

But you can go too far with this policing. And I think the Toronto Star has gone too far by shutting comments down completely across its website.

They say they want to capture the conversations about their stories that are happening on social media. Well I hate to break it to them, but the typical reader of a newspaper website is an older person who seven times out of 10 probably is not even active on social media. And what about the sports commenters? They love to share instant reaction on your site about games in progress, and you’re shutting them out? It’s crazy. And it’s a lazy cop out.

There’s at least one blogger out there who completely agrees with me on this.

* BTW, there may be some of you who think media sites should have commenters use their real names. The fact is, this is problematic for three reasons: 1) No one has staff-time availability for verification; 2) It leaves out the protections for whistle-blowers; and 3) Using something like Facebook for commenting doesn’t actually stop the hateful speech. I know — I tried it once.

 

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