June 24, 2018


Have Comment Sections on News Media Websites Failed? (NY Times, 4/18/16)

Many newspapers and online media companies have begun disabling comment sections because of widespread abuse and obscenity. Of course, that vitriol is not meted out equally: The Guardian analyzed its comments and found the 10 most abused writers of the past decade were female and/or black. (The Times moderates comments in an effort to keep them on-topic and not abusive.)

Have comment sections -- once thought to be a democratizing force in the media -- failed? [...]

Despite Flaws, Comments Are Good for Public Discourse (Eun-Ju Lee)

Comment sections can have interesting effects on readers. For one thing, the mere existence of them at the bottom of a story can change how readers perceive the partiality of the reporting. My research has found that when comments are uncongenial to a reader's own opinion -- especially on an issue that hits close to home -- the reader is more likely to blame the article for bias. They are also more likely to rate the same story more negatively when accompanying comments are vulgar or inflammatory.

Comments can shape individual readers' opinions, of course, but more interestingly, they can also shape how a reader interprets public opinion more broadly. The extreme beliefs of a few can be interpreted as a reflection of the beliefs of the general public -- distorting perceptions of reality.

Comments can distort how readers interpret public opinion and media bias, but they allow for a far more participatory news media.
Despite such misinterpretations, and the other risks that misguided, uncivil user comments may pose, I do not believe in shutting down user comment sections in most cases. Far from being the ideal public sphere -- wherein public-minded citizens openly share reasonable arguments and are gracious about their opponents' perspectives -- user comment sections are nonetheless an important ongoing experiment that tests the viability of deliberative democracy.

It's been our experience that it isn't particularly hard to keep the comments section civil and profanity free, provided you police them and ban the participants who can't conform.  Trolls pretty quickly get tired of having vitriol and profanity deleted and just head elsewhere.  And you can almost always identify the commenters who are building up to racial, religious or personal invective and profanity, both by the topics they choose to comment on and by the obsessive nature of their participation (I always ban them pre-emptively if I'm going to be away).

We use these simple rules for the blog and the comments:

(1) No profanity. 

(2) Minimal self-reference (though none would be unnatural) 

(3) Minimal linking to other blogs. 

(4) Minimal reference to comments.  (Folks who write comments don't get to do so on the front page, so we try not to write about them on the front.) 

(5) Try--though I'm bad about this myself--to only quote about three paragraphs, or no more than a third,  of any story you blog.  We want folks to go read it at the site that owns it.  But if you need to use more to make the excerpt make sense, no problem. 

(6) Always link to the original--we want folks to read the whole thing--and don't use links that pop up a new browser window.  It's annoying for readers and if we aren't interesting enough for them to navigate back to us, that's our problem. 

(7) Never let it interfere with real life. 

And, in turn, have a few requirements in the comments:

(1) No profanity

(2) No personal attacks

(3) No linking to dubious sources

(4) No espousal of hateful political theories (which, predictably, only ever occurs in discussions of religion, Darwinism and immigration)

And, lastly, a guideline, rather than a rule:

(5) Ask one question or raise one point at a time and we'll be happy to address it.  Ask or raise 5 and we'll still address just one.

[originally posted: 4/18/16]

Posted by at June 24, 2018 7:02 AM