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How journalists are coping with reader comments and why

Sunday Herald has a really interesting piece on how some of Scotland's leading journalists are coping with reader comments, which makes for interesting and revealing reading (via Martin Stabe).


Most can't abide or be bothered with them for more or less obvious reasons; it's also interesting to consider that those who do see value in them are both beat journalists addressing a niche audience (Spectator and a BBC blog).


The article reminds me of Gawker's recent piece arguing that newspapers shouldn’t allow comments at all, at least not on news articles - a position I have some sympathy with. Perhaps comments should be welcomed on a news site’s blogs and forums only, while for instance using services such as Twingly to visualise the conversation the site’s news articles spur elsewhere on the web.


Now that's the how, Adam Tinworth and his colleague Andrew Rogers have a few interesting thoughts on why journalists shy away from comments. Adam has these suggestions:


  1. The lack of defined community around national newspapers. This leads to a lack of consequences. You aren't discussing with your peers or neighbours, but with random strangers. Misbehaviour has no particular social consequence. The worse possible consequence here is being banned from that particular community - but usually it's pretty trivial to return under a different name.
  2. The relative novelty of freely-available commenting on news. It will take years for a set of standard behaviours for authors and commenters to emerge. As those behavioural norms emerge more things will be seen as unacceptable.
  3. Anonymity. It's been a long-treasured part of internet culture that you can craft new identities for yourself which have little or no relationship to your real-world identity. Could it be that, in some parts of the internet, that boon is, in fact, a bane? And that injecting consequence into the debate is the only way to improve its standards?

Another explanation that was put to me by a tabloid journalist, was that the fact that she couldn't be herself - as in a person who had such and such values and opinions - but had to represent the newspaper, made it a lot more difficult to engage in conversation with readers online. If I understand her correctly, we're back to how the mantra of objectivity inhibits journalists in this brave new world of ours.


I haven't encountered this particular obstacle myself, but then I predominantly write for journalists in my day-job - and if we get vitriolic comments it's most likely for missing a comma, or misspelling, or for not being good representatives for journalism at large - I can imagine it would feel much more inhibiting not being able to show your colours if the discussion is on politics, policy etc. To paraphrase Adriana, 'on the internet you can't behave like an institution. If you want to behave like one, you get isolated and bypassed.....


First: I can't for the life of me understand why newspapers would hold on to commentators anonymity. That's no way to build a society - with a faceless mob.

Building a society first of all demands that we engage in the conversation with our readers, setting the tone and standard of both conversation and society. And we need the society in order to get links, in order to make money.

I most strongly believe that all articles, including news, should be open for comment. But either the paper needs to hire a reader-journalist (community manager), or it needs to engage all reporters in the conversation on their own articles.

Honestly, I've heard journalists talk about how awful commenting is. The same reporters haven't yet enganged in one singel conversation with their readers in public. Maybe that's a place to start? Just start talking? Because I really do believe readers want to be seen, heard and talked to.

I really enjoy The Guardian blogs but the comments sections take on a life of their own once a piece is published. The journalists rarely (if ever) enter the fray, which is a shame as there's plenty of scope for useful dialogues.

I think once (if ?) newspapers place more emphasis on paying journalists for article hits, page-views, etc, we may see instances where journalists enter the comment sections. Or they may just assume fake identities and say somethinng controversial to generate more discussion.

Bottom line: this is an emerging territory without an established mode of praxis yet for many professional journalists.

Unfortunately these "toxic comments" are people's genuine views. Stick a camera on the Clapham omnibus and, bar nerves, people will opine the same thing to a billion viewers. All the bile is out out there. Novelty or anonymity have nothing to do with it. ~10% of the commentors pilloried on spEak You're bRanes (http://ifyoulikeitsomuchwhydontyougolivethere.com/) give their full name, inasmuch as that ties you to a real world identity. There's a lot of disenfranchised and vitriolic elements in UK society; they've gorged on junk media for ?twenty years and now have a fat arse and an upset stomach. Quick! Duck! Incoming projectile vomiting!

Here's a loose, annecdotal "case study". Yesterday (or was it the day before?) NICE, an organisation who approve drugs for use in the NHS, refused to authorise use of a kidney-cancer treatment. People hereabouts seemed to hear the story as villainous NICE preventing dying cancer victims from receiving treatment; ‘Isn't it awful?’, was the mildest response I caught. And that's how the indignation is stoked: another straw on a commentor’s back until, one day, they break, and spill their bile all over a blog, even though the story--as I heard it--was world-renowned NICE, one of the government's success stories, turning down an expensive drug that only gave 2-3 weeks life on existing therapies. So basically the MSM had acted as a PR agent for the pharmaceutical company in question.

Adam's point (2) is particularly telling. The internet has been a giant flame war since it's inception, so I don't see time helping here. But, as I've tried to show above, people are incensed about things that don't impinge on their lives because of the reporting. And I don't want them to hide these thoughts--reverting to thoughtcrimes instead of speechcrimes--I want them to change their minds. I want them to see why their views are simplistic or fallacious. And journalists were the people we trusted to do this. You were the bouncers who were supposed to keep the criminal element out; but you've let everybody in, and now that fists are flying, and people are banging into you, and it's time for to do your job and wade in and set people's minds right.

Pål: As I noted above, spEak You're bRanes shows that a lack of anonymity doesn't disinhibit toxic commenting. Plus some of us have names that are more common than Dave Gorman (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Are_You_Dave_Gorman%3F) OTOH IT news site theregister.co.uk allows anonymous commenting. And while the atmosphere may resemble the canteena at Mos Eisley, replete with in-house AI (http://www.google.co.uk/search?q=site%3Atheregister.co.uk+amanfrommars), it can be worth diving in because there will be an anonymous comment by an employee of the organisation under discussion. So anonymity is a red herring: it presence can help the debate while lack of it doesn't much enhance it. (But I would say that, wouldn't I?)

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