Sorry, Monty Python, but in commenting thou shalt count to two, no more, no less. Two shall be the number thou shalt count, and the number of the counting shall be two. Three shalt thou not count, neither count thou one, excepting that thou then proceed to two. Four is right out.
Reporters who are asked to take part in the comments on their online stories sometimes say they’re worried they will do something stupid. And I’ve heard editors express the same fear — about their staff, of course. But in the several years that I worked with reporter comments, there were only a handful of times that I had to take down a staff comment, or even caution someone.
Some of the issues were with reporters who needed to be reminded of a clear rule: Don’t state opinions in the comments if that’s not your role in writing. It’s simple: If you’re a columnist, you are paid to have opinions; if you’re a reporter — at most American newspapers, anyway — you’re paid not to have them.
In those cases, the problem lay only with the reporter; the rule was clear and had been stated many times. At the same time, breaking it didn’t disrupt the comments so much as it affected the reputation the paper wanted.
A corollary to this went further: Don’t snark in the comments if you don’t snark in the stories. (Personally, I would have preferred to impose a general “no snark” rule on all staff, but that’s because I had to deal with the fallout from the snark-and-run staffers.) Snark from staffers can create firestorms, so we not only made it a specific rule, but got at the same issue another way by saying: Remember you’re not responding to the individual commenter, you’re responding to everyone user. That was aimed at staffers who might say that a particular commenter insulted them or obviously wasn’t going to be persuaded by logic, so they should be free to respond in kind. Not so, I would tell them. Users expect more from the staff of a news organization. And the logic that is lost on the individual commenter may win over other, less rabid users. If nothing else, the staffer can show who the adult is in the room.
A trickier issue, because it was harder for reporters to recognize, was responding to trolls. You know who I mean: the commenters who keep poking comment after comment. They don’t necessarily use bad language or make their remarks personal, but mere repetition of the same question or complaint over and over is disruptive and probably designed to instigate trouble. (Of course, the trolls are always quick to cite the rules they didn’t break (“I didn’t curse,” etc.), because they follow Annoying Sibling in the Back Seat logic: “I’m not touching you!”)
In training, I would tell staffers not to get into arguments, but that proved too vague for some. They’d answer a commenter’s question as they should, and the follow-up, and … very quickly, they’d find themselves in a running battle. For those staffers, I invented the Commenting Rule of Twos: Never answer the same question more than twice; never respond to the same user more than twice.
Frankly, the few times I ran into trouble myself as a staff commenter, it was because I forgot this rule. There’s nothing magical about the number two, but anything fuzzier makes it too easy to fall into a pitted battle. Two and out may occasionally cut off a useful conversation, but far more often it will stop a trolling run before it can really get started, and force a reporter to move on before she succumbs to the temptation to get personal.