FROM THE EDITOR’S DESK | Commenting on comments

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Margaret Reinhardt writes:

“Sometimes I think that newspapers have lost their way given the competition with other news sources particularly television. Newspapers have always had something that TV news doesn’t: the opportunity for readers to provide feedback via commentaries, letters to the editors, and op-ed pieces. Along comes online newspapers with a quick way to allow feedback, and publishers are back in the game of attracting readers. Indeed reader comments are popular, but are they the right thing to do?

“To me, what is wrong with this picture is that most reader comments are neither news nor newsworthy. They are reactions and opinions and should be treated as such. Online publishing provides an easy way to link reader opinion to a particular news story and publishers have fallen for it – mixing readers opinions with the facts of a journalist’s work piece. Merely adding screeners for offensive comments doesn’t address whether reader comments fulfill the basic mission of a newspaper.”

Comment policy is a continuing issue for all of on-line journalism. I’ve written about the TC Daily Planet’s comment policy before, and Sarah Bauer recently wrote about the Comment Conundrum forum sponsored by the Minnesota chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists.

One consensus at the forum was that comments are essential to on-line journalism. Among the reasons for comments: 

  • To increase traffic to the site.
  • To give readers an opportunity to participate in civic dialogue and debate the issues of the day.
  • To encourage interaction between readers and writers and among readers.

How can comment policies work to accomplish these goals?

Well, if the most important goal is driving traffic to the site, the best way to do it is by allowing unmoderated comments, instantly published, and featured in some kind of running feed on the front page.

If the goal is to foster civic dialogue and interaction, moderation to allow only reasoned and civil comments might work. But who gets to decide what is “reasoned” and what is “civil”? Setting such a standard for moderation of comments would certainly result in “blanding down” the conversation, and might make it more likely that opposing viewpoints get shot down as unreasonable.

Encouraging interaction between readers and writers and among readers could be done by a Facebook-like system that notifies writers when someone has posted a comment on their article or on their comment. (We plan to do that, as soon as we can get the technology to work.)

A front-page running list of comments could also contribute to dialogue among readers. I haven’t seen that happen — more often this kind of comment box seems like an in-group conversation among the same dozen or fewer readers every day.

We tried the front-page box of comments, but found that the first line of a comment frequently sounded boring and didn’t really communicate much. Then we tried highlighting interesting comments. That’s time-consuming, and I’m not sure that it serves any of the goals listed above.

Most people at the forum also agreed that moderation is necessary. We moderate all comments and all articles and blogs on the TC Daily Planet site. That’s essential, just to avoid spam and advertising. We also keep out comments that are overtly racist, probably libelous, threatening, or personal attacks of the “I know him personally and he is a crook/liar/shoplifter/child abuser” variety. Some name-calling falls in the latter category.

What do you think about comment policies? Specifically, would you like to see:

  • a complete ban on profanity and name-calling?
  • only comments that address the topic of the article?
  • only signed comments?
  • a comment box on the front page with a changing stream of comments?
  • a comment box with only one or two interesting comments?