Commenting on Commenters
“...editors have succumbed to the web nerds' concept of all information as "content," and the "message" sent by the design of most comments sections is that "all text here is equal." Obviously, it's not all equal. Some "content" on a page contains true—or at least well-researched—statements; some is utter BS.”
My op-ed in the Globe apparently touched a nerve as (I’m told) there are more than 190 comments currently logged under the piece. I was asked to appear as a guest on WBZ-TV4 News and “Beat The Press,” the WGBH weekly show with Emily Rooney, to discuss the issue. The column is also one of the most e-mailed stories, according to the boston.com Web site. Meanwhile the St. Louis Post-Dispatch ran the column and asked readers to vote on how they feel about comment forums at the end of news stories. As of this writing there more than 700 votes cast with 58 percent voting in favor of dumping the comment forums altogether and 22 percent saying they should be better policed. Check it out here. It’s interesting to note that most of the comments at the end of the article are pleading with the newspaper to not allow comments. Interesting.
Coincidentally, a columnist for the Bangor (ME) Daily News penned a column on the same subject, striking a near-identical position.
A blogger for the Minnesota Post, David Brauer, has taken on the issue, too, and contends newspapers are taking “renewed aim at the comment cesspool.”
And a Kansas Paper also took up the issue of the merits of online anonymity.
I’m not too surprised by the reaction. It’s a provocative topic and takes straight aim at the Internet culture that preaches that all information is content and news should be democratized, blah blah blah.
I expect most of the comments at the site are bashing me and the Globe for publishing such a thing. So I thought I would post some of the emails I’ve received, all but a couple supportive, on the topic. These people sent message directly to me, weren’t afraid to identify themselves, and, like me, think the comment forums on newspaper sites should be abandoned. I have removed the names because I don’t have their permission to use them. Shouldn’t seem to be a problem in the anonymous world of online comments.
“I have something interesting to say about your column: Great column; couldn't agree with you more!”
“Loved your opinion piece on the losers at the bottom of stories. excellent point, well argued.”
“Hey, nice piece today! I agree with you 100% also.”
“Thanks for writing about an increasingly disturbing phenomenon,the unknown maven on just about any subject blogging their stupid comments. The dumbest are the sports know-it-alls, followed closely
by political blow hards!”
“By way of confirmation of your views: I have stopped reading the "comments" after articles and op-eds. Inane, illiterate, thoughtless will do for openers. Similar to talk radio; I turn it off when the callers start.”
“Great points today. Hope somebody listens.”
“Hi Doug, just read it. Amen to every word of it.”
“Since you invited signed letters, I thought I would accept your challenge. I thoroughly disagree with everything you say in “Got a comment? Keep it to yourself.” [I know authors do not compose the headlines.] Of course, I agree with you that every slanderous, provably false e-news article comment should be censored out. But I do not think that it logically follows, that ergo all anonymous comments are of this nature. There’s a vast middle between slander and bland. I think the comments section can be a little more frank, candid and vigorous than the paper version itself, because the commenters have to do some work to access that page, they have consented to some vitriol, so to speak, as long as it vicious ad hominems, like the ones thrown at Sarah Palin and her children, for instance. Are some comments vitriolic and demeaning? Yes, but you’re arguing to throw the babies out with the bath water. For me, the comments sections are the electronic equivalent of graffiti walls found in nations with oppressive, non-1st amendment regimes. Advocating only for the standards of, say, the paper Globe, is the equivalent of privileging the ideology purveyed by the main-stream media. Are you also for the so-called Fairness Doctrine to silence conservative talk radio?”
(My response: “Well, I think there is no shortage of avenues today for people to express their opinion - so the graffiti analogy doesn't really apply - in fact we are awash in opinion but lacking knowledge and civility. I think the papers should have consistent standards for the printed words they host. But why do they even need editors if they provide opportunity to include data in the web stories that they have said should not be in the print version? I don't get it.”)
“Enjoyed your op-ed piece. I wish you also mentioned "town message boards,"along with the comments following columns and news stories!”
“Doug, I just wanted to say your piece today in Boston.com was exactly right on! You raise such a great point about how it debases journalism, which I hadn’t heard as articulately expressed before. We do live in interesting times – where traditional media outlets just haven’t figured out how to grapple with the internet tiger. I sure don’t have any answers, but glad smart people are looking for them.”
“I thought it was terrific. I couldn't agree with you more.”
“I think your column in today's Globe is spot-on. It's so refreshing to see someone addressing this problem, and without mincing any words.”
“Thank you for it. I couldn't agree with you more. Recent stories about Frederick Douglass (in the Globe) and Massachusetts connections to the slave trade (Worcester T&G) have been followed by blatantly bigoted and racist comments. It's outrageous that these "forums" are not refereed.”
“I couldn’t agree with you more on your comments in the globe. The forums you criticize also allow for groundless, non-fact based attacks on those mentioned in articles.”
“Huge kudos for your op-ed piece today: well-said, and needed to be said!”
“I won't get to into it cause you said you wouldn't read any feedback. I think your op-ed was dumb and spineless, but i suppose your "comment" was submitted the way a "smart" person would do such a thing. How about keeping your comments to yourself?”
(My response: “If you were right, I would agree with you.”)
“I think it’s great that you got 160 comments on an article about how much you hate comments. That’s the web for you!”
“Your op-ed piece today made me stop and think about the affect that
comments may have in shaping perceptions of popular opinion, reader
engagement and journalism standards.”
“I read every word with relish and mounting support for some sort of
insurrection to stop this trend which we have all seen become an almost automatic feature of the once-great news organizations.
It feels to me as though this is the way it works now.
1. Reputable writer creates article or post
2. Trolls, cranks, plants, and other idle chatterers opine on said
article at nauseum in the vein: "well I think the facts are these..." as
if everything was subject to their opinion of the truth
3. The public feels that all truth is now relative, and subject to
actually being defined by the number of yeas or nays that the mob utters
This ends badly, with the demise of civilization as we know it. Really.”
“I read your Boston Globe article with special interest. Plus, of course, the slew of comments, many of which bear out what you have to say. As a fellow news junkie, I, too, shake my head at the “devaluation of journalism” by the haters and spoilers and ranters…”
“LOVED your article ... I completely agree! :-)”
“Nice try, but the toothpaste is out of the tube and it’s a mess.”
“Good job with your piece yesterday. It was something that needed to be said.”
“The comments section is akin to having a graffiti wall under every painting in an art gallery.
Unfortunately, editors have succumbed to the web nerds' concept of all information as "content," and the "message" sent by the design of most comments sections is that "all text here is equal." Obviously, it's not all equal. Some "content" on a page contains true—or at least well-researched—statements; some is utter BS. If professional news media doesn't help sort truth from BS, then what are we for?
Anyway, our paper gets way more comments on our Facebook page than on our main site or our blog—which makes me think the "forum" argument for keeping comments under news articles is short-sighted.”
“As an aspiring journalist, an avid Boston.com reader and fellow media junkie, I'd like to thank you for a truly excellent piece in the Globe today.
I used to value online commenting as a natural extension of the ideals of journalism. However, as I see more and more well-written articles denigrated and trashed by cowards with no accountability and no shame, I'm starting to wonder if there's any real value to them. Thanks for helping me make up my mind.
About a year ago I was interning as a reporter for The Jerusalem Post, which required interns to take a once-weekly night shift moderating comments on their website. Suffice it to say that the beat and editorial policies of the Post attract a disproportionate number of racists and fanatics from all sides. But even on Boston.com, the number of bigots and narrow-minded folks who take joy in slinging mud and starting flame wars is astounding.
This is, of course, just a natural extension of the power of the internet to bring people together. In the late 90s, at the start of the dot-com bubble, we looked forward to a "global village" online. It seems to me that we've created more of a global cage-fight.
Thanks again and keep it up.”
“Fantastic column today. Thanks from me and so many of us here. we have been fighting this battle, unsuccessfully, for years. (once, when a reporter spoke to the editor about it, he accused him of not respecting the reader...give me a break). i have been back and forth with so many editors, too. finally, they "compromised" by not putting the comments directly onto the end of the story but another page. big freaking deal. Your column was right on point and well written.”