When I was training journalists from one of the biggest media groups in Portugal in the wonders of online media, my favorite strategy to take a break during sessions was to launch debate. And none was so prolific as the discussion about article comments.
The divide was strong, and the general feeling was of frustration: all publications were understaffed, so there were no real comment moderators; most of the comments were nothing but personal disputes between commentators, agressive rants towards journalists, personal opinions on unrelated issues; grammar was a nightmare, the language was fowl; they complained about the usual patrons that tried to pass as experts but were far from it. Hell, they even had poetry posted in the comment box. And it was awful.
So, why have open comment boxes? Most agreed it drove audience numbers up: when one of the group’s websites decided to shut down the comments, visit numbers slumped. The comment box was the poor man’s social network, fed by negativity, stupidity and hatred. Management decided to profit from it by making the feature available again, even though it casted an ugly shadow below the byline. Freedom of speech was also debated.
While I was catching wind for the next bit, I listened to their personal frustrations towards this or that specific commentator. I started this game called “who’s commenting”, in which – with the available data – we would find who they really were. Shock and awe ensued, since the people that were harassing them for months -even years – were not quite what they expected.
Journalists and commentators had little respect for each other.
I said that in a everyway communication environment there are risks, and they should be handled to steer away from damage and into added value. They replied :”How?”
How to find value in the free manifestation of the common citizen, perched on his device delivering his two cents of personal spew, mostly uninformed, irreflected and useless? No wonder we love social networks, those personally crafted echo boxes where we can hide dissent with a click of a button.
This question is raised again in this Journalism.co.uk’s post that starts off with the decision of Reuters shutting down comments throughout their website. And they’re not alone:
Other news organisations have done the same, including the Chicago Sun-Times which described comments as “an embarrassing mishmash of fringe ranting and ill-informed, shrill bomb-throwing”
There are arguments in favor, though:
“It’s a very contentious issue. It’s something people feel very strongly about. My argument is if you have a website at all, why wouldn’t you give people the ability to comment on your content?”
The ecosystem has changed: opinon shifted from comment boxes to social media posts. The engagement arithmetic of links from external blogs or users replies to the articles became derisive. And publishers are no longer in control, either by this new logic or by negligence. Understaffed, remember?
We can never hope all our readers are smart, engaged people. But we shouldn’t dismiss most of them as solitary loons that use the comment feature as a soapbox for their diatribes. Thus, it’s up to publishers, and must be weighed section by section of their websites.
My non biliary two cents on this is if you don’t have a system – and the people to implement it – that doesn’t monitor and reward the best commentators, forget about open comment boxes. They are distracting and useless, and make intelligent readers nauseous.
If you do, allow (restricted) time for the article to be commented on and let the author join the discussion. Many don’t, and they should participate in the same way they write their stories: based on facts and in a impartial, non personal fashion, ignoring the trolls. No fight is worth picking in a comment box.
Get those pesky commentators out of the online anonimity and offer them a tour to your newsroom, enact live forums where they can be face to face with their targets. Make them show up or shut up.
Of course, this last suggestion is a bit idealistic, not to say impossible. But leave your comments below.