Every mistaken idea about comments, neatly packaged

Some journalists want to hog the online megaphone for themselves.

Some journalists want to hog the online megaphone for themselves.

Rarely have I seen as many wrongheaded statements about news sites and comments rolled into one package as in a recent post by Una Mullally on the Agility. Let’s start here:

If we didn’t have editors, news stories would land scatter dash on the page regardless of their importance. In many ways, prurience already drives this. Tabloids splash stories about celebrities while countries invade each other. Stories on the “most read” lists on websites aren’t necessarily the ones that are the most “important”.

Yes, if only London’s tabloids would lead with the situation in the Ukraine and the question of David Clegg’s political future every day, the public would no longer care what George Clooney is up to. C’mon. Newspapers, magazines, news sites — they choose which audiences they wish to target and try to adjust their content accordingly. There is a word for those where an editor chooses stories with utter disregard for whether anyone wants to read or watch them. That word is “extinct.”

It’s become groupthink amongst media companies that readers’ thoughts and opinions should be valued.

That sentence stopped me in my tracks. Value readers’ opinions? What a bizarre and thoroughly unprecedented notion.

Years after comment sections became standard on news sites, I have yet to see their benefit. If anything, the general tone, which tends to veer from aggressive to pedantic, is off-putting to more measured contributors who have something relatively valid to add.

Mullally’s correct that unmoderated comments will tend to drive away more reasonable commenters. But you know what also drives them away? Being shunned by the site’s staff. Take, for example, my oldest brother. He’s one of those people who spots typos and other errors when he reads, and — worse yet, from some journalists’ perspective — points them out, in the comments and in emails.

He told me about a baseball beat writer he regularly reads. He noticed that the writer would respond to comments and would fix stories when users pointed out boo-boos. My brother wrote the guy to point out something, and the writer not only responded politely but explained the constraints he’s under in filing a quick game story before dashing out to interview players. (Yes, I have since informed my bro that baseball writers are the hardest-working folks in the news biz and deserve a break.)

On the other hand, when a different writer fills in on baseball coverage, my brother’s seen, he ignores the comments completely and keeps making the same mistakes over and over.

Which writer, do you think, is my brother more likely to pay attention to?

Comments are at their most vitriolic when “issues” or “values” are the subject of an article. An article about feminism will be followed by misogynistic comments. An article on religion will be followed by anti-religion or anti-atheist comments.

I’ll give Mullally this point — if reporters stay out of the comments and moderators are nonexisting or inactive. But engagement and smart moderation can produce intelligent comment conversations, as sites such as MLive have shown.

Yet news organisations are at the mercy of the reader. They think they need to make them feel wanted, included, valued, part of the process, privy to the mechanics of the news cycle. They want their opinions and photos and videos and thoughts and tweets and comments.

Oh, heavens. If journalists start paying attention to readers and soliciting their input, the next thing you know people will expect politicians to do the same.

[F]or the most part, a journalist engaging with the comments is akin to a footballer pausing to chat with the “fans” on the terrace throwing coins. Some will eat the banana with panache, others will get caught up in pointless and circular arguments with commenters. It’s not very productive to answer comments that are off topic, insulting, wrong, or just stupid. It’s time consuming and bears no fruit.

Indeed, it’s not very productive to answer insulting comments. You know the solution to that? Don’t answer them. Reporters get caught up in circular arguments? Hmm, if only there were ways to counter that.

[T]he “game” seems to require rules only for one team – the journalists’ side. The reader can say whatever they like (before it gets deleted), yet the journalist is meant to combat this with reason, explanation or pithy remarks or humour if they are so inclined.

Gosh, it’s as if getting paid to do a job brings with it some obligations!

I could spend hours each day answering comments and arguing with people in the comments section, or, I could use that time working on ideas for other articles, researching, or writing.

Hours each day? Really? Are journalists incapable of acting in moderation? Either they spend their days doing nothing but responding to comments, or they ignore the comments completely?

Comment facilities do not follow the example in tone of the article above them, they follow the example of the tone of online “conversations” across platforms, which is largely terrible.

Actually, comments often follow the tone set in the initial comments, which is why some sites encourage journalists to jump in early.

I operate a policy of ignoring all feedback, positive and negative, unless it’s from colleagues or people I respect.

Well, at least I don’t have to worry about Mullally getting upset by my post.


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    • By John Kroll


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