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Are Online Comment Sections Wearing Out Their Welcome?

Pierre Selim'/ Wikimedia Creative Commons

Many news organizations have found that their online comment sections have increasingly become places where a relatively small group of people dominate the discussion with crude rhetoric, insults and even threats.

Now, a growing number of news outfits are either radically revamping their comment sections or even dropping them outright.

What does this do to the model of “interactive” journalism heralded by the internet? And how are journalists adapting to these changes? J-P-R’s Michael Joyce brings us this report.

The list is substantial and growing: CNN, Bloomberg, Reuters, Chicago Sun-Times and - just recently - NPR.  All either dropped their comment sections or moved them to social media.

Most said their comment sections had become more diatribe than dialogue. Staff and readers alike were becoming disgusted by rampant racism, misogyny, and malicious threats.  But what about journalists and readers in our area? 

My first stop was the sauna at the Arcata Community Pool where opinions are shared the old-fashioned way: face-to-face, with a real name attached, and sometimes with a touch of extra steam. I spoke with JoAnn, Eric and Tyler, who asked me not use their last names.

I don’t like the comment section because people are rude and disrespectful and they just say mean things,” JoAnn told me.

“Sometimes I’m taken aback, sometimes I’m shocked,” Eric said, “but I learn a lot about what other citizens are thinking.”

“It’s like this control thing,” Tyler said. “You can have the power.  And who cares enough to prove their point to someone on the internet?”

Apparently, not that many people -or, maybe better put -  a small, vocal minority. NPR’s website gets about 30,000,000 unique viewers each month, but less than one percent make comments, and a fraction of that comment regularly. Those small numbers are typical for most news sites. So if comments were dropped would they even be missed?

Hank Sims think they would.

“Comments underline the fact you are dealing in an interactive medium,” Sims says. “It’s not somebody standing on a mountain preaching down from on high.”

Sims is the editor for the Lost Coast Outpost, a hyperlocal news site that Sims created to become the “Homepage for Humboldt County.”

“I think having no comments would ignore the reality of how people communicate nowadays,” he says. “Which is that anybody can publish, anybody can have a popular following, anybody can talk to thousands or millions of other people very simply. That didn’t exist before. It’s more dialogue then it had been in the past.”

But it was nastiness, not dialogue, that forced Sims two years ago to develop a unique adaptation. He divided his comment section into three parts. One he called “Thunderdome”, where pretty much anything goes. The second is called “The Country Club” which aspires to be more genteel. And the third is the satirical “Zen” section that has no comments whatsoever.

Readers don’t just get to pick their poison, they pick their dosage.

So if comments could be considered content, then isn’t moderating this content a slippery slope to censorship? Marcy Burstiner doesn’t think so.

“Comments are content. Absolutely they are content. But if you have a newspaper or magazine or television station you wouldn’t just air anything. That is not journalism.”

Burstiner is Chair of the Department of Journalism at Humboldt State University and a devout First Amendment advocate.

Journalism is moderated conversation,” Burstiner says. “That’s what journalism is. When you don’t moderate then it’s just public discussion, and there are lots of forums for public discussion.”

Most small news outlets don’t have the resources to monitor comments full-time. A common solution is to use a third party comment system to help filter spam. Most outlets will also delete blatant harassment, profanity or criminal activity. And they require some form of registration. But they know commenters can remain anonymous simply by using screen names and generic email addresses.

“It’s not about the anonymity, it’s about what it does to the conversation,” says

Thadeus Greenson, news editor for the Eureka-based alternative weekly, The Northcoast Journal. Like most editors he’s noticed complete anonymity creates an open season for trolls. But a complex registration system can stifle participation.

“We really want to do as much as we can to facilitate a dialogue in the community about our stories and work,” Greenson says. “A strict policy that forbids any anonymity can really silence that discussion, especially around sensitive topics. So for us this the kind of the best compromise of having some accountability, but still allowing anonymity.”

All the journalists I spoke with had been personally attacked online. But they still continue to believe in the value of comment sections.

“So often in the comment section a viewer or a commenter will bring up something we didn’t think of.”

J Hockaday is the manager of KIEM-3 television in Eureka.

“And very often that takes us down another path with that same story which we wouldn’t have gotten any other way.”

Of note, according to a study by the American Press Institute, only one out of three Americans consider comment sections to be important.