The myth of the online comment

Forum Communications last week announced it would begin separating readers’ online comments from the news stories with which they’re associated. It was the latest in efforts some media organizations are taking to rein in the hatred, racism, and stupidity that have become the hallmark of Web site “comments,” especially for newspapers.

This weekend, the Buffalo News announced it would now require its online commenters to identify themselves by name, and their identity will be checked.

News Editor Margaret Sullivan writes as if it’s as difficult as trying to stop an oil well explosion:


Media organizations all over the country, particularly newspapers with active Web sites, are struggling with this subject. There’s no easy answer. The tension is between wanting to take advantage of the freewheeling expression of the Internet and wanting to keep standards of reasonable tolerance and decency on a public site.

There’s no easy answer? Of course there’s an easy answer. Newspaper editors have been able to tell the difference between something valuable and something hateful, racist, and stupid for generations. It seems an odd assertion that they so consistently profess to struggle with the question.

So what’s the real reason? They don’t want to spend the time doing it.

There’s something else, though, that newspaper people don’t want to do. They don’t want to talk to you. One of the reasons “self policing” has failed is because there’s no sense that there’s any conversation taking place.

We know by simple observing of human nature that if someone actually thinks a real person is going to talk to them right back, they’ll be less, shall we say, indelicate in what they say. And a real conversation might break out.

It’s not hard. There’s nothing to wrestle with or struggle over.

Reporters by nature object to taking more time to actually talk to readers and listeners, contending they don’t have it to give. But if there’s something Twitter has taught us by following reporters, it’s that that’s an entirely false argument.

(h/t: Quick13 via Twitter)

  • MR

    Today’s xkcd comic is remarkably well-timed with this post.

  • Alison

    Bob, media outlets actually need to pay someone like you to talk back to commenters. And if they pay a salary to people like you that means less in profits for them.

    I hate to say it, but many executives would rather have money than you. But they don’t know you like we do! : )

  • http://davincidad.wordpress.com John

    Whenever this topic comes up I start feeling like I’m standing in a room of mirrors reflecting back on each other: comments on an online post about an online post discussing new standards for comments on online posts.

    If I find out someone is writing a story about comments on posts like this, my brain will probably have to curl up in a corner and cry.

  • http://erikhare.wordpress.com/ Erik Hare

    I agree with this completely – I have little doubt that real engagement with people would cut the problem down.

    There is another effect, I think, which is very important. News organizations that try very hard to build their credibility have, in effect, pitched themselves as an “authority”. That only encourages some people to lash out at them in ways that they wouldn’t to some ordinary citizen.

    Simply responding to comments would go a long way towards improving them overall, no doubt. But I think that it has to be one part of a major effort to get off of the ol’ high horse that in the past has been seen as a major part of a news organization’s image. That is a very big change that I doubt anyone at the top is willing to even consider.

  • John G

    I disagree, or at least qualify my agreement. I don’t think most people who comment on a news story have any interest in a conversation with the news organization. They are speaking to the world, i.e. the other readers of the site. That’s who they get into flame wars with, not the editors or publishers or reporters.

    It’s one thing to moderate – i.e. select for publication – written letters or even emails that will go into the paper. It’s another to moderate the much greater volume of comments to an online story.

    That doesn’t mean that it’s impossible, but OTOH what do you pay to read the news site? If a publisher has 50 stories a day with 150 comments each (I make up these figures but they might be realistic), that’s a lot of ‘moderation’ – even to kill the idiotic posts, much less to engage with them on the subject of the story.