Forum addresses journalism’s comment conundrum

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The Minneapolis Star Tribune, Minnesota’s largest daily newspaper, receives 15,000 comments to its online stories every month. The St. Cloud Times receives comments by the thousands, as does the Pioneer Press.


But are they worth anything?  Or as David Brauer, media reporter for MinnPost.com recently characterized it, are online comments nothing more than “a cesspool” of hate, personal attacks and other sentiments that aren’t worth the electrons they occupy?


A distinguished panel of experts, including online editors, columnists, reporters and a media lawyer, discussed the phenomenon September 29  at a forum sponsored by The Minnesota News Council and the Minnesota Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists at the University of St. Thomas.


If there was any consensus, it was that readers’ on-line comments are popular.


“Four to five percent of all online users comment online, which may not sound like a lot, but many commenters are active, repeat users,” said Star Tribune Assistant Managing Editor/Digital Terry Sauer.


There was less agreement on a variety of other points, however, such as whether comments should be monitored, and whether they’re harmful.


Mary Turck, editor of the Twin Cities Daily Planet and Jeff Achen, online editor for ThisWeek newspapers agreed on some positive effects.  “We seek comments from people during the editorial process and get readers involved with the creation of the story,” Turck said.  Added Achen: “Commenters have also helped us correct errors in some stories.”


However, comments can also cause great harm, argued Star Tribune columnist Gail Rosenblum.  “I find myself trying to protect my sources from my readers.  My sources have become concerned that they’ll get attacked on the Web,” she said.


Many commenters attack not only the journalists but also the story subjects.  In fact, Sauer said that the newspaper has learned over the years that it’s necessary to monitor comments 24/7.  “We now moderate every comment on StarTribune.com,” he said.  “Earlier this month we decided to go that route; we wanted to make sure we listened to our readers and some of the criticism.  If you go back and look at the comments in the last couple of weeks, they are far different than what you saw earlier.”


Even so, Sauer estimates that of all the comments submitted, only about 10 percent are outright offensive, 40 percent present no problem for the newspaper’s screeners, but another 50 percent fall into what he called a “gray area.”  The result is that even the screeners have to be monitored to determine whether they’re letting too many questionable comments pass or being too restrictive.


Policies differ as well as to whether comments should be signed by a reader who registers using a “real name.”  Some publications, such as MinnPost and The Wall Street Journal, require a real name and an email address, but other publications, such as the Star Tribune, allows comments to be anonymous.  The challenge, said Sauer, is the ability of the publication to verify an individual’s identity.


“The verification process is virtually impossible,” he said.  ‘If you’re a small Web site, you could do it, if you’re getting 15,000 unique comments each month, you just can’t verify.”


Mike Knaak, assistant managing editor for the St. Cloud Times said that anonymity is also a natural part of Internet culture.  “There’s an expectation that what you say online is anonymous; people say things [both good and bad] that they might not feel comfortable saying if they had to sign their name,” Knaak said.


Audience members had their own opinions.


Bob Franklin, a retired Star Tribune reporter and St. Thomas adjunct professor, said the use of anonymity in comments contributes “to the lowering of civil discourse in society.”  Other audience members agreed, commenting that despite the challenge verification presents, that doing so may solve all of the problems associated with the issue.