The case for online comments

Moderating comments is neither as heroic nor as dangerous as fighting a war, but I have seen that two-thousand-yard-stare on the face of many a moderator. (Painting by Thomas Lea)

Moderating comments is neither as heroic nor as dangerous as fighting a war, but I have seen that two-thousand-yard-stare on the face of many a moderator. (Painting by Thomas Lea)

Popular Science shuts off comments on its website; cue the Comment Wars again. I can’t help myself. So: my counterarguments to the comment critics. (The executive summary: The problem with online comments isn’t the commenters. The problem is lazy, cheap, cowardly or clueless site bosses.)

People say nasty things in comments

People say nasty things outside comments, too. Newspaper reporters certainly got nasty letters and phone calls long before the internet.

But with comments, those nasty comments are public

1. With or without comments, those nasty comments can be public. Blogs and social media give everyone a microphone. I’d rather have the conversation happen on my own site, where I can see it easily and intervene directly.

2. Publishing any individual comment is a choice, not a requirement. Every site is free to decide what level of nastiness it’s willing to accept.

Publishing bad comments in the same space as the original article in some way harms the article.

Having witnessed years of comment sniping, I’ve never seen crank comments sway anyone away from their original opinion. I do believe that, say, anti-vaccine comments may encourage people — who already had doubts or were already prone to conspiracy theories — to join in the debate, and to harden their attitudes. And, true, if readers were kept unaware that others shared their beliefs, they would be more likely to change their opinions over time, or at least to keep quiet about them.

But today’s journalists, often obsessed with reporting disputes as false equivalences, don’t have a very sturdy platform from which to make this argument. Any profession in which a major outlet like the Chicago Sun-Times can give a rostrum to the likes of scientific twit Jenny McCarthy can hardly claim to be concerned about fostering misconceptions.

That said, there is no First Amendment right to comment on a website post. It’s your house; you get to set the rules. Don’t want crackpot theories? Remove them, respond to them, whatever.

Publishing racist, sexist or otherwise offensive comments harms a site’s reputation.

Absolutely agree. Which is why sites should not publish such comments.

Installing word filters, letting users report comments, even requiring Facebook sign-ins — none of those effectively blocks all bad comments.

Quelle surprise. Effective comment moderation requires human intervention — continuous, consistent intervention. Some things can help, such as making it easy for users to report bad comments and giving them the option to block from their own browsers the comments of users they dislike. But there is no escape from the need for people on your staff making the decisions about what to spike.

Human comment moderation takes too much time, cost and effort.

Lots of tasks we do require time and effort. Reading all your letters to the editor, selecting a few, trimming those and checking to verify identies takes time and effort, but most newspapers still claim to do that. Editing copy takes time, cost and effort, but you wouldn’t — oh, right. Bad example.

Or, perhaps, very good example. Ever since the demise of proofreaders, at least, newspapers have been making cold calculations about how much they can let writing suffer while still holding on to a big enough readership base. Recently, the answer has become that they can let the writing suffer a heck of a lot. And that’s for a quality that the newsroom managers have been taught to value. No shock that newsroom managers, who as a group haven’t shown much openness to feedback in general, would consider it not worth anyone’s time or salary to ride herd on comments.

But moderation is possible, and — for most sites that don’t get the outrageous volume of comments that a Huffington Post or New York Times do — possible with no more than a handful of staff. This is especially true if managers pitch in as both moderators and commenters, and if they require reporters and mid-level editors to participate in the comments.

An editor whom I respect told me that he hated the idea of taking reporters away from their jobs to dabble in comments. This attitude frustrates me. Participating in comments should be a part of each reporter’s job. When comments are moderated properly and reporters show themselves willing to respond, a lot of good questions show up. Even when reporters don’t participate, commenters often spotlight errors, incomplete information, or additional resources.

If you aren’t willing to pay people to do the needed job of comment moderation, either stop complaining about the quality of the comments or drop comments entirely. But if you drop them, don’t make up sob stories about how you’re doing it to save science or because you’re protecting the readers. That’s as bogus as saying you’re cutting copy editors because they delay breaking news. Is it so hard to admit you’re deciding financial priorities?

Comment moderation slows things and prevents real conversations.

Again, your choice. If you want your site to be pristine, set up some form of pre-approval. On this blog, initial comments are always held for moderation, but trusted commenters show up immediately. The bigger your audience, though, the greater the burden on you to keep up with those unapproved comments.

Advance Digital requires registration — a very low hurdle — and then lets every comment publish immediately, with after-the-fact moderation. Such a system will quickly reveal all the gaps in your moderation schedule. But I found that if we responded quickly to specific complaints and targeted the posts most likely to attract jerks, users grew willing to accept a certain amount of uncollected trash.

No one wants to be a comment moderator.

Lord knows I’m familiar with the thousand-comment stare from a tough day. A lot of what I was doing, especially when I first put on my hip boots and waded into what was then a mostly unmoderated stream, had little to do with journalism.

While there are companies that specialize in comment moderation in bulk, at the site level you want your comment moderators to be professionals, and you want to keep them from going crazy and leaving in six months. That’s why you should combine the supervision of comment moderation with other duties — I did it at first while also overseeing newsroom training in general; later, as the online editor; I’ve seen it done successfully as part of an overall community engagement position.

Don’t make the supervisor do all the moderation herself. Involve as many people as possible to spread the work. At the least, every editor in the newsroom should also have some moderation responsibility, under the supervisor’s guidance.

I don’t recommend having writers moderate comments on their own posts, however — not in general. A few can handle that, but most will either get defensive and take down too many comments, or be overly generous and leave too many up.

Look at these crime stories: There’s nothing good in these comments

Many journalists are Manicheans when it comes to comments: If they’re not all good, they must be bad. If we have a problem with comments on certain types of stories, we should shut them off on all.

Blocking comments on certain stories is one way of achieving a balance between the effort required to moderate and the resources available. Toward the end of my time at The Plain Dealer, we decided to disable comments on a variety of stories — violent crimes, motorcycle fatalities, among others — if the posts were short on details. The ratio of acceptable to unacceptable comments on those types of posts was running about 1 to 10 or worse, and the kinds of bad comments they were attracting were one of the two types that generated the most complaints. (The other type: the reductio ad politicum, otherwise knows as It’s All (insert name of politician, political party or philosophy here)’s Fault.)

Comment moderators must be given the tools they need to do their jobs. These include the ability to selectively disable comments on posts, the ability to swiftly block individual commenters, authority to take such actions without approval from non-moderators, and permission to use their intelligence rather than taking a fundamentalist approach to narrowly written rules.

Every comment thread dissolves into a political food fight.

See “permission to use their intelligence,” above. The bane of the commenter moderator’s life is the reporter who whines that the comments on his story are awful, but also gets upset when you remove comments because “they didn’t say anything obscene” or “people have a right to say what they think.” Tell your moderators that their job is to keep the comments under control and focused on story topics, and then get out of the way and let them do their jobs.

But if we shut off the political fights, users accuse us of censorship

So? Hire moderators with hearts of stone. Or former elementary school teachers. Or just put this in big bold letters atop each comment string: NO WHINING.

I’ve had my share of disagreements with some who thought we should moderate lightly so as not to discourage anyone from commenting. Since it was an argument about volume, I stuck to this theory: There are only so many curmudgeons and racists; the number of comments they can generate is high but finite. If you remove them, you make more room for a much broader commentariat and the number of comments will actually grow.

I was never able to provide absolute proof of this; too many variables. But I certainly saw a wider array of user names once we cracked down on the jerks. And it became easier and easier to spot the handful of recalcitrants; they stuck out from the broader stream of on-topic remarks.

Most of the people who comment, criticize the site.

What do you expect, lots of comments saying “Way to get the facts correct” or “Nice job of spelling words?”

If the complaints are off-topic, remove them. If they’re on-topic, respond to them. If a particular commenter or group of commenters is trolling — posting almost nothing but complaints, clearly trying to start arguments — see “permission to use their intelligence,” above.

Or, heck, just set a rule that says readers can comment on the content of posts but not on the quality of the reporting or anything else about how you do your jobs. Sure, when you first do that, a group of commenters will be furious and may bombard you. But if you stick to your guns, most of them will go away. Personally, I’d allow for reasonable criticism. But the real point is that you have the means to stop any kind of comments you dislike, as long as you’re willing to put in the effort.

Most of the people who comment are disgruntled about something and don’t offer positive solutions.

If you fail to properly moderate your comments, and your staff fails to respond to readers who make good points, of course you will chase away reasonable people and end up with a collection of grumps, geezers and ax-grinders. Even a moderate effort at moderation and some staff participation will start to improve things. I knew we were succeeding on when government, corporate and non-profit officials started engaging in the comments.

Almost all comments come from only a tiny percentage of the audience, so why bother?

Only a tiny percentage of most cities’ populations every attend council meetings, so why make those public?

Put aside the ax-grinders, and the rest of your comment regulars are an audience you should treasure and encourage: fiercely loyal, spending hours on your site. And, if you do your part of the job properly so the comments are not a swamp, those few commenters are providing free content that will draw the eyeballs of lurkers, keeping them on the site long.

I want my work to stand on its own.

Hey, I’ve got a foolproof way to accomplish that: Never publish.

But, wait …

Have I missed any anti-comment arguments? Let me know.


  1. By Miss Terry Mann


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