Comments on stories: Be careful what you wish for
The following is a post from my blog at thenewstribune.com. Comments are a growing problem for news sites boldly charging into the digital age. (Beth Lawton had a great roundup of suggestions on how best to deal with comments on the NAA’s New Media listserv recently, in case you’re struggling with how to deal with them on your site.)
In a nutshell, I think everyone’s job in a newsroom will include the moderation or facilitation of comment and content from the community in the future. We are at an awkward middle point right now and many news sites (including mine) should be embarassed by what is allowed to be posted by users. It won’t be like this forever. We’ll get this figured out.
If you have visited the comments on our stories recently, I apologize. This is not what we had in mind.
At their best, story comments add layers to a news story that a newsroom simply can’t. Local expertise, interaction, discussion and a healthy exchange of ideas based on the news in the report.
At their worst, story comments are nothing more than senseless drivel. Mean-spirited personal attacks between people who know each other’s screen names intimately but know very little about their adversaries in real life.
A few years ago, just when blogs were really taking off and hitting mainstream awareness, we started talking about allowing comments on our news stories. Around the same time, we had a focus group of younger readers tell us they would love the opportunity to interact with the news through comments. They said, “We want to play, too.”
We welcomed the idea of allowing readers to hold us accountable, just as we try to hold those in power accountable to our community. We looked forward to the exchange of ideas around our news stories between locally interested citizens. But we also knew that some moderation would be critical; a truly open forum could potentially devolve into a cesspool of personal attacks and bitter name-calling (human nature being what it is). And we didn’t accurately forecast the volume of comments that we would receive on a daily basis, let alone those that are posted at all hours of the night. So our minor commitment to foster this community – including the ability for users to “flag” comments they deem inappropriate – has proven to be insufficient.
We now find ourselves at a crossroads. The comments on our stories are marred too frequently by back-and-forth attacks between a small number of regulars who accuse one another of past transgressions and posing as alternate identities. We receive complaints that many of the commenters are, in fact, the same person holding court with himself or herself for all to see. And we are not alone; most news sites that allow comments have even worse conversations running on their sites. From what I hear from online editors around the country, we’re actually pretty lucky (which is really scary).
At the same time, editors at the newspaper complain that we don’t have enough comments on certain hot button stories (especially when local bloggers get more comments on a post about our story) and we should be doing more to create conversation with our news.
And still there have been many beneficial, constructive, learned conversations on our news stories. And even the correction of errors found in stories that were highlighted by reader comments. To me, anyway, the pluses have outpaced the minuses.
So what should we do? Make all comments go through a review before they are approved? Turn off comments and just make the problem go away? Or continue to allow an open forum and hope the good will shout out the bad?
My preference is to redouble our efforts to the care and feeding (and discipline) of this dynamic community. The comments on our blogs are mostly constructive, high quality contributions by smart people who know the topic, sometimes better than our reporters do. In my opinion, those comment streams work because the blogger is responsible for fostering the discussion and keeping it on track. If we applied those same guidelines to our story comments, we would certainly improve the quality of the discourse.
But whose responsibility should it be? The reporter who wrote the story? The reporter’s editor? An online editor? All of these people are already plenty busy, so there is no easy answer.
Another option might be to enlist the community for support. Some news sites have “deputized” a small group of regular contributors and asked them to police the comment streams. This is also interesting to me. But the obvious question this raises is “why would we trust the foxes to guard the henhouse?” We often see people grinding personal axes when using our “flag” function to notify us of comments they want removed. After all, what would motivate community members to do a good job? Money? A byline in the newspaper? A free T-shirt.
We’re actively discussing how to improve the situation with our comments. While we could use some better software to help us manage them, we can’t wait for that. In the meantime, if you have any suggestions, please let me know – or add a comment below.