Hello again, gentle readers (I can’t stop, and I don’t think I even want to). In today’s post we’ll be taking a look at the comments sections of blogs and news websites (also, in very old news, AP finally changed “Web site” to “website.” How stoked are all you J-School people? Next on the list, “E-mail” to “email.” It won’t be long now!).
Let’s start with a little historical review, because, as I learned in History and Principles of Journalism, every new media innovation today has some sort of grounding in a historical journalism practice. This one is not quite historical, but important none-the-less. Now, since the 1880′s, letters to the editor have been an integral part of newspapers. They served as a way to express opinions about newspaper articles–mainly editorials–and political issues. Letters to the editor still serve a purpose in today’s (numbered) print publications. But, with online publications and digital media on the rise, gentle readers, the news consumers have found a new way to express their opinions.
The “Comments Section.”
Comment sections, threads, discussion boards, and moderated forums are now a virtually instantaneous way of sending and publishing a reaction or opinion (that pun back there was unintentional, I assure you). These comments sections take the concept of letters to the editor to a new level. They allow readers, and writers, to engage in discussion and debate about what they’ve read. Since the comments are viewable by anyone who visits the website [Yes! website! Not Web site! (guess who got an Auto-E for that one? Just guess...)] anyone can react to what other people are saying. This can be beneficial to journalists who make the most of online media. Partaking in the conversation taking place on your website (hahaha!), blog, or article allows the writer to learn by bringing their journalism into the conversation through asking questions, challenging ideas, and seeking clarification among other things. Readers can be a wealth of knowledge that a journalist might not have, they can have stories that need to be added to a piece, and they can bring a different viewpoint to the picture. That’s what the conversations around the writer’s piece can do.
Unfortunately, gentle readers, as with anything the comment sections have their downsides. Most of which revolve around the infamous anonymous reviews. When people can submit things anonymously, there’s a very good chance they’ll take advantage of that and write things and opinions they would never express if people knew who they really were. This has been an issue on websites for as long as these discussion board-like environments have been in existence. People post idiotic, hurtful, hateful, racist, and disrespectful things under the guise of anonymity and pseudonymous monkiers.
This is a sad but true fact, gentle readers.
It has even caused some to even shut down the comments section of their sites. During an interview with Bob Garfield for On the Media, Ira Glass talks about a piece posted to The American Life about a woman and her teenage daughters who ran away. The comments that were left on the site’s “bulletin board” were horrible attacks on the girls and their mother. Glass said that eventually they had to take down the bulletin board for that piece because they did not want to create a forum for people to express their “mean-hearted” opinions. “We don’t have to endorse that by giving it a space,” says Glass.
Even though Glass shut down the bulletin board, later in the interview he says, “…you make something, you put it out in the world and you want people to have feelings about it, and the feelings can include, they hate you and that seems okay.” It seems okay, gentle readers, because people are able to express their opinion about something–even though their opinion might not be that popular. It’s one of the fundamentals of free speech, and it brings about a problem news organizations face today and will continue to face in the future: how to handle the comments section.
The solution, gentle readers, may not be a simple one, but one thing major newspapers and media companies might consider is moderating comments like they have letters to the editor. It’s not encroaching on free speech, because it’s doing what newspapers have done for year: tossing certain responses unfit for print for whatever reason into the trash.
Is this possible in the digital age? Can online publications toss comments into the digital trashcan if it’s not something they would publish in print? What do you think?
Note: I’m currently looking for the link for the interview I mentioned. I had to read it in Journalism and Technology but now I can’t find it. Stay tuned for updates in case I do!