Jul 24, 2009

Tune in, turn off or drop out?

Not since roll up windows came to the automobile has pent up rage had a better release valve than news sites allowed reader comments. Rather than scream uselessly at the television or stab at the newspaper with a butter knife, the enraged and repressed can adopt anonymous handles and type out all manner of obscenity and epithet. Ask any reporter who's covered illegal immigration or gay marriage and they'll you how quickly, and predictably, the trolls descend.

This leaves news sites with a few choices - turn off comments on stories that raise sensitive issues (and shut out thoughtful commentary in the process), shut down comments altogether, or make some effort to manage comments.

Patrick Thornton at Poynter recently asked various publishers what they do. First he defined the problem:
Stories that elicit hateful and racist speech -- those dealing with immigrants, homosexuality and crime, particularly sexual assault -- are the first to go. "What makes crime comment threads go sour?" Publish2's Ryan Sholin asked on Twitter, and then answered: "Racism, hate, dislike of the police, and racism, I'd say. Also, racism." ...

Melissa Coulter, community editor of the Quad-City Times in Davenport, Iowa, and Brianne Pruitt, Web editor at The Wenatchee World in Washington, both said on Twitter that their news sites do not allow comments on sexual assault stories because of the risk of someone posting the victim's name. ...

Stephanie Romanski, Web editor of The Grand Island Independent's site, said on Twitter that her news org removed all commenting from the site and now has a "tweet this" link that enables users to take the discourse to Twitter. In a blog post in May, she explained why her news org decided to turn off commenting:

"We are also sending away the headaches that go with it and the drivel that can sometimes negate the integrity of the journalism. The latter is something our publisher has always pointed out regarding comments -- the ones who post rumors, the ones who post incorrect facts, the ones who tread the fine line between personal attack and playing by the rules -- those kinds of comments, he feels, can drag down a story and therefore our reputation."


Not everyone, however, agrees with limiting comments even on controversial stories. Mathew Ingram, communities editor at The Globe and Mail in Toronto, said in an e-mail that his paper usually only closes comments on stories involving legal issues around contempt of court or libel. Ingram believes that a lot of important discourse is lost by limiting comments to only uncontroversial stories.
In another post, Thornton argues more active engagement is needed to prevent the threads from turning into "comment ghettos." That may be true, but it strikes me as impractical and unwise to ask reporters to get involved with defending a story, or responding to anonymous posters bent on suckering the writer into a rabbit hole.


Anonymous said...

I love editing comments sections for hate-speech, vulgarities and libelous speech.

But too bad for me because my newspaper company has actually cut back online personnel and I don't have time to monitor comments.

Anonymous said...

To 4:20 p.m., at least you still have a job to speak of.

Anonymous said...

You didn't mention personal attacks against reporters regarding their race or physical appearance. Seems to me this creates a hostile workplace issue -- but editors just tell you to delete them after the fact.