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:
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).