The comment cesspool

Once upon a time, journalists had mixed opinions about allowing readers to comment on news articles, and having those comments appear below the articles on websites.

I had to deal with it nine years ago, when I setup a website for my student newspaper, and each article was open to comments by default.

Some welcomed the chance to converse with readers. But others said many of the comments were in bad taste, took personal cheap shots at the author or subject, and in general weren’t helpful. They brought down the level of debate instead of enhancing it. And journalists who wanted to share links to their work had to share links to the comments as well.

More recently, a few years ago, the debate was similar in a professional environment. On the part of media bosses, there was a hunger for comments. Not only do active comment sections boost traffic, but they provide free material to use. The local CBC newscast, for example, regularly quotes from reader comments online. The Gazette uses a comment or two on Page A2 of every issue.

Now, though, the opinion is near-unanimous, at least on the part of front-line workers: opening comments on news articles, particularly the ones which are likely to generate debate, exposes them to a rotten cesspool of human ignorance and hatred.

Just look at this comment section from a Gazette piece:

Comments removed by a moderator attached to a news article

This isn’t an isolated incident, nor is it limited to The Gazette. The Globe and Mail, Toronto Star, CBC and National Post all have active comment sections, and they’re all criticized as showcasing the most bigoted, racist, uninteresting, closed-minded, hate-filled thoughts of a reactionary crowd too stupid to think about a topic for more than three seconds.

Even though they have different policies – some require approval of comments before publication, others act when someone flags a comment as abusive; some delete the comment when taken down by a moderator, others replace it with a note saying a moderator has removed it – the only constant seems to be the inverse relationship between the number of comments a story gets and the intellectual value of those comments.

Maybe it’s time we rethink comments on news stories. Many have brought in some form of peer moderation (about a decade after it was developed on Slashdot, but better late than never I guess), but that isn’t changing much. For one thing, inflammatory comments get rated up if they’re popular. For another, the rating doesn’t do enough to separate the gems from the crap, particularly when the default isn’t to sort comments by score.

You also still have the problem that, for many stories, there’s just too many bloody comments. The threads get so long that nobody reads all of them before commenting, and they start getting repetitive. The object moves from responding to the piece to responding to other comments, and the discussion quickly degenerates into name-calling or the knocking down of flimsy arguments with just as flimsy counterexamples.

I think we need to give serious thought to just shutting down comments all together and coming up with a new system. One focused not so much on forcing the commenters to identify themselves (which isn’t feasible anyway) but on separating the interesting from the uninteresting, promoting good, insightful comments and burying or eliminating those that are unhelpful.

In the print newspaper, this is done by selecting letters to the editor. It’s a necessity because of limited space. The result is that people put thought into their letters, because they know that uninformed garbage won’t make it into the paper.

News websites have to understand that just because they have the space to publish everything doesn’t mean they should. And if they do publish everything, they either expect people to read everything (which isn’t realistic) or need to find some way of making sure those few comments people do read are the most useful.

It’s not just about not getting sued or keeping hate out of their pages, it’s about moderating and facilitating real, informed debate between readers.

UPDATE (April 9): That whole “shutting down comments all together and coming up with a new system” is, coincidentally, just what The Gazette is doing. Comments are being closed on most stories online now (including the one saying that comments are closed on most stories).

UPDATE (April 12): The New York Times on what big newspaper websites in the United States are doing to combat this problem.

17 thoughts on “The comment cesspool

  1. Olivier

    Well, any customer service or tech support representative could tell the exact same tale, I guess.

    “I think we need to give serious thought to just shutting down comments all together and coming up with a new system. One focused not so much on forcing the commenters to identify themselves (which isn’t feasible anyway) but on separating the interesting from the uninteresting, promoting good, insightful comments and burying or eliminating those that are unhelpful.”

    Ooooh, a publisher exerting editorial oversight on content he publishes; you daring devil, you!

    Seriously, I think you nailed this one: nobody with prima facies experience with commenters want them to overtake the newsites. Basically, when Radio-Canada runs a page on niqab ban with comments, they forfeith the primacy of what they produce on their platform. It is my opinion that there is no way in hell this is a good thing.

  2. wkh

    I think each newsite should have a comment board, NOT attached to the articles.


    this creates problems. I’ll give a small time example…

    I read this article and my eyebrow went up for a lot of reasons, mostly personally known due to being friends/acquaintances with every single person quoted in said article.

    I emailed the editor in chief my concerns this ran like a gossip rag bar fueled bitch session, clued her in to a lot of back history, and mentioned that perhaps the link should yk, check their sources.

    I got a blast of a reply basically calling me a biased whining bitch and to please write back if I had anything of substance.

    So I did. I immediately sent them this. (the Rex Murphy interview mentioned in the article -and Hotchkiss says absolutely nothing of the sort that Noun claims she does, I mean as in not even remotely related or close, which makes me think Melanie isn’t the only one with hazy recollections of events several years gone by) which I found after about 3 minutes of googling. I asked why I was the one cross checking their source’s comments. I’ve found no reply, and the article, with a complete bald faced lie in the middle of it, has not been edited nor do any comments on it indicate the problem. Nor was any correction made in print, that I know of.

    Now if that happens somewhere as lame as Concordia about something as lame as CSU elections, where else does it happen?

  3. Jax

    I was reading The Globe & Mail a few weeks ago and noticed that on articles with sensitive material – such as arrests in a child-pornography sting – have their comments tool disabled. I was wondering if this was a decision taken for legal reasons, or because very few comments would pass the decency test. Do you have any idea?

    1. Fagstein Post author

      I’ve noticed that newspapers are preemptively closing comments on stories they know will degenerate quickly. When it comes to things like crime stories where court cases are subject to publication bans, those will also usually be closed to avoid inadvertently publishing something they shouldn’t.

  4. Elysia

    A few weeks ago there was a blog post being passed around through Twitter arguing that anonymous commenters on news sites isn’t the problem, rather it is the lack of engagement with them … more or less.

    I agree with you when you say that forcing commenters to identify themselves isn’t feasible. I can create a gmail account with a fake name in about 10 minutes. I think that a lively and interesting commenting system needs to be cultivated. When comments get out of hand – like they so often do at least on The Gazette site, have a moderator pop in and leave a note reminding commenters of a paper’s terms and to keep them on track. Sure the news site might be accused of acting a bit too much like mommy and daddy but perhaps when commenters realise that a living person is checking in, it will be easier to put a proverbial face to the name that is the news site and it will begin to create a space where there is discussion not only between commenters but between commenters and the newspaper.

    Shutting down comments isn’t the answer either, at least in my opinion because they will be able to find somewhere else to leave comments. I’m not saying engaging with the comments section will automatically create a racist – bigot – homophobic – sexist – free commenting environment but like anything, creating this kind of community is a process.

    If that doesn’t work – what about a captcha? It might go a little way to stem some of the overzealous commenters.

  5. Chris

    I normally read the CBC news website once a day to get a superficial overview of what’s happening in the world. Unfortunately, sometimes I can’t pull myself away from the comments section, they’re like a horrible train crash, you feel sick looking but you just can’t turn away!

    I once read a blog on this subject awhile ago where the writer asked us to imagine the National on CBC where immediately after Peter Mansbridge signs out, every bigot, racist, armchair politician, activist, and bored person sitting around with nothing better to do is allowed to take the floor for 30 minutes and yell at the top of their lungs about what happened in the news that day. That’s exactly what the CBC (and other news sites) comments sections are like.

    I feel as if comments sections work well in blogs where a niche subject is being discussed and the readership is relatively low. That way, the people who are reading and commenting are doing so because they are interested in the subject and have a bit of background knowledge to be able to say something insightful that people are actually going to read and appreciate (or debate if they don’t agree). News sites can’t do this because they’re too general and the readership is too large for there to be any real meaningful discussion. With general news sites, most of the commenters just sit around commenting on everything. How can you have insightful and informed discussion when someone can spend 20 minutes and have commented on a story about a murder in Alberta, a priest molesting children somewhere in Europe, some political issue in southeast Asia, the WHO’s response to H1N1, and the current trading rate of the dollar. Obviously, nobody can possible have anything even close to expertise or even knowledge in all of these subjects so the majority of the comments just degenerate into knee-jerk reactions. Even if there was something informed said in a comment, it will be buried within a few minutes as more comments are posted.

  6. Marc

    In my opinion, comments to a news article are not a necessity.
    But… I like them or else, I wouldn’t be here…
    As seen on many forums (depending on it’s nature), comments are turned off after a period of time either fixed (24-48 hours) or after a fixed time has elapsed since the last comment was made.
    This type of measure would help save some time with the moderators of the comments sections.
    Combined with a required full name in your comments and registration to be able to comment tend to make people more civilized. Lose a bit of anonimity and you become less of an ass.
    And of course, you need to moderate if only to keep comments on topic.

  7. Karine

    I have to say that the La Presse blog by the editorial staff has become alot more civilized ever since they’ve mandated that only signed posts would be published. It’s pretty clear that some names are pseudonyms but the vicious attacks, especially when André Pratte was the one writing, were really something to behold and I was always surprised the moderators allowed them through.

  8. Jean Naimard

    Still having fun with the “Galganov is still an idiot” thread, eh, Fagstein? :) :) :) :) :)

  9. Karine

    One more point: Blogger Andrew Sullivan doesn’t have a comment section, He simply posts a few emails everyday from readers who either approve or disagree with his posts. Though I bet a comment section would probably be as interesting as his post,s it would probably devolve into a left vs right exchange, not to mention those with no capacity to form a coherent thought would probably just go the homophobic route.

    @Chris: niche topics are no guarantee that trolls won’t operate in there. Again if I take Cyberpresse as an example, I was surprised at the number of people who would, say, go into the fashion section or, say, whatever silly subject Patrick Lagacé wants talk about, only to say how it’s a useless topic, how Gesca wants to lull the population from whatever heavier topic they feel should be discussed and if the topic is remotely related to men, how women are all emasculating harpies etc. Joseph Siroka, who does the movie blog, even had to state, as a policy, that any comment that deviates from the topic at hand would be deleted. People who want to share their ignant (not a typo) views with the world will do so on any topic.

    1. Chris

      It’s true that you can get trolls anywhere but some comments sections will get more than others. The examples you give from Cyberpresse, while they may be niche topics, are still on a mainstream general topic news website. More specialized blogs or news sites are where you’re going to get the better comments. For example, I moderate comments on SpacingMontreal which is a very, very niche blog and our comments sections, for the most part, are of very high quality. Because the readers are interested in the topic they’re commenting on, they often have insightful or informative things to say and add to the initial post and because the number of people commenting (usually between 3 and 40), we’re able to step in if a topic’s comments have gotten out of hand. This is something that just doesn’t happen when you have such a variety of topics and huge number of readers on mainstream news sites.

  10. Sirkowski

    The bigger the media, the worse the comments.

    Angry people who feel they don’t have a voice want to piggy back the media. So the more mainstream it is, the more they feel it’s a tool to spread their anger.

  11. Alanah

    The other day, I saw a CTV television news concocted a story about how Canadians feel more superior to Americans since the olympics. Besides interviewing a few college students, they “supported” this story by quoting hate-mongering comments on a non-specified web news story. Then they really drove home their point by saying how many “thumbs ups” each comment had received.

    Go, journalists!

  12. Christopher Smith

    Excellent post, Fagstein, and I trust that not only newspapers (like the Gaz) but also readers will quickly realise that it is for the editing that we pay for a newspaper. Free, unedited content is worth every penny it cost.

    The interwebz will never be edited – it is already the Wild West out here – so we depend on trustable sources that ARE edited. Dead tree news is only one of the sources possible; some websites (like the Huffington Post) are rigourous, but so far even the Gaz has not edited comments, preferring to shut it down. Without editing, we are stuck with the original output of the thousand monkeys on a thousand computer keyboards, hoping for some insight somewhere among all the gibberish.

  13. TB

    Well, I’ve seen a comment page like this on the story about CJAD shuffling on-air personalities, basically it was hijacked by a couple of morons with axes to grind, and whenever there was an opinion that they didn’t agree with, they would flag the comment and it would dissappear the next day- readers could see the accusations and arguments going back and forth, if they were quick enough to read it before it dissappeared. It was petty and ridiculous, but typically no inappropriate language was being used- they just got fingered because someone didn’t like what they had to say. So, it effectively shut down any sort of real debate. Perhaps they should implement an emailing system rather than a ‘flagging’ system, it was too easy to shut someone down.


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