Commentary

A Righteous Halt To Web Site 'Comments'

As you’ve probably read, NPR will turn off the comments switch on its Web site as of Aug. 23. That’s the kind of news that many will welcome. The readers' section has become the place for racist, sexist, violent comments and attacks on journalists. And at times, the comments have introduced or perpetuated falsehoods.

At their worst, comments are nasty. I’ll give you my worst-case example. In 2011, when it was reported that CBS News correspondent Lara Logan had been sexually assaulted by a gang of protesters in Egypt’s Tahrir Square, some commenters on the New York Post coverage, to put this as nicely as I can, voiced regret they weren’t there to join in.

I was outraged and tried of getting a hold of someone at the paper in the conventional ways. When that didn’t work, I found a reporter I knew (a bit), and implored her to get the newspaper's  bosses to take that stuff down. A few hours later, they did. Not to be too heroic about it, but I think without my effort, nothing would have been done.

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Based on that alone, I’d say, good, get rid of those comment sections. NPR wasn't the first to do it. Even PewDiePie briefly cut off comments on his YouTube site, sickened by them.  

Eliminating comment creates a future in which much of the conversation about news stories just won’t happen. Except for the feature, commenting about a Website’s videos or stories occurs somewhere else, away from the scene, and not very immediately.

If there is a mistake or criticism, you can’t very easily call a Web site. And none that I know have the equivalent of a “letters to the editor” section. The Contact Us place on sites must deliver emails to where?...the North Pole?

The same is true with TV.

The average person can’t reach a TV newsroom. At one time, “60 Minutes” ran three or four heavily edited “letters” per week from readers, but that was a long ago. In an era in which we may be communicating more than ever without each other, journalism still operates in a semi-walled garden.

Does that have something to do with why the public hates the press? Well, I’d say, it doesn’t help.

Organizations that monitor their site comments--The New York Times for one--winnow out the idiots, but readers may wonder if they also winnow out dissenters. It seems to me the NYT doesn’t allow a lot of reader comment about a news story’s structure or facts. Anyway, only about 10% of the Times’ stories are open to comment at all.

At one big city site I know of, comments on crime stories have been shut off to stop race-baiters from posting.

But monitoring is an expensive undertaking. When comments are turned off, it's a dramatic example of bad driving out the good.

Elizabeth Jensen, NPR’s ombudsman, understands why public radio is removing comments and hopes NPR does as it says and finds new ways for comment. She, too, notes that “listeners and readers have no other option for contacting reporters directly.”  

But  she also writes: “Seeing the current sorry state of NPR.org commenting, I support the move to end comments. I am also disappointed. . . . (T)his latest move seems like a step backward, as understandable as it is. So I hope NPR will make good on the promises that newer engagement options will be tried out.”

Back in the anti-war days, the short-lived Scanlan’s Monthly magazine hit upon a novel letters policy. It said it would run cogent letters for free, but would charge a fee--retroactively--for letters that the editors found offensive or poorly reasoned.

It was a tongue-in-cheek policy, but recalling it makes me wonder if, in fact, some version of that might work online. To post comments, you must create a credit-card account for, let’s say, 50 comments. But you're shut off immediately if other readers object to a vile remark and a Web site administrator agrees. Having to pay 10 or 20 bucks a crack to call people names might not be worth it.


pj@mediapost.com
6 comments about "A Righteous Halt To Web Site 'Comments'".
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  1. Bill Burnett from Good Citizen Media Group, August 19, 2016 at 3:50 p.m.

    A better approach might be to make people pay for the right to comment.  So much internet content is free and many don't wish to pay for their news or articles. But might be willing to pay a small fee for the right to comment.  This might weed out some of the trolls but leave the public forum intact.

  2. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited, August 19, 2016 at 4:04 p.m.

    Snail mail. Let them write a letter, typed and double spaced and have to post it. Not that they cannot do it now, but this would be the only way they could see it published. It's one way of weeding.

  3. Chuck Lantz from 2007ac.com, 2017ac.com network, August 19, 2016 at 4:56 p.m.

    My first internet job was managing sports website forums, which included moderating, back in 1998.  I've learned how important comments can be for websites, as well as how scary they can be.  Killing the comments section is both the lazy, and the counterproductive way out.

    Comments can be easily controlled by limiting participation to legitimately registered users, who must post under their real names. Trusted long-time commenters can be used as volunteer moderators, with the power to delete or hold a posted comment until an "official" moderator can judge it.  

    To be both honest as well as harsh; ... any site that essentially silences their readers is both lazy and ignorant of the benefits of knowing what your readers think. 

  4. Douglas Ferguson from College of Charleston, August 19, 2016 at 6:40 p.m.

    I guess having comments go to a holding area until some college intern can exercise common sense is just too difficult for NPR. 

  5. Chuck Lantz from 2007ac.com, 2017ac.com network replied, August 21, 2016 at 1:31 a.m.

    NPR could easily learn how well a comments function can work, and how valuable it can be, by visiting this little clubhouse here at Mediapost.com.

    So far, no one here has threatened to hunt-down and maim another comments participant, ... knock wood, and the comments themselves are often as informative as the articles (with all due respect to the article authors.)

  6. Kevin Horne from Lairig Marketing, August 21, 2016 at 2:01 a.m.

    Ah yes, reading the comments section. Except for MediaPost of course, it is the digital equivalent of rubber-necking. Fairly soon YouTube will be the only place to get your "dead body" thrill. 

    Unless Trump wins the election ...

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