When readers attack
Why are online comments so extremely loud and incredibly verbose, and what can be done about it?
By Davida Ander
“What’s your problem?”
“Isn’t it obvious? He’s an unemployed welfare bum.”
“Once you are done you may fornicate yourself.”
“You just antagonize people to get people to react, dude. It’s what you do! You have serious issues!”
“I win every time due to your lack of brains, slightly amusing on occasion but bore quickly of you, til next time I’m bored, bye bye schmuck….”
“Bye bye, coward.”
“This comment has violated our Terms and Conditions, and has been removed.”
For the large, silent majority of readers turned off by comments sections, the solution is simple: stop reading them. But for journalists, who are frequently themselves the subjects of discussion, and who are increasingly being pressured to moderate and participate in online discussions, ignoring the problem just isn’t an option anymore.
Nor should it be. Canadian news sites need to become more comment-conscious and replace vague suggestions for comment response with positive examples, clear policies, and how-to instructions. Frustrating as comments sections can be, useful contributions should be welcomed—and deserve to be answered.
There are positive examples out there. For Kim Bolan, responding to reader comments on her Vancouver Sun crime-beat blog means getting access to exclusive information from some of her gang-involved readers. “Sometimes it’s a little tidbit of information, because people will post, for example, the name of a murder victim long before the police are prepared to give that information out publicly. So I get it and I have to, of course, confirm it, but I get a leg up, in essence, because I’m on this blog and communicate with people,” she says. And Bolan’s work has paid off. She says her blog averages 250,000 to 300,000 readers each month, one of the highest numbers in the Postmedia chain for a blog. Bolan’s participation in her blog’s comments threads has not just improved the tone and quality of the comments; it’s paid dividends for her reporting, as well as the size of her audience.
But when it comes to journalist-reader interactions in the comments sections of Canadian media, Bolan is an exception. While newsrooms encourage journalists to dip their toes into the comments sections, they’re rarely instructing them on the practical level: when to respond, and how.
At the Toronto Star, editors are working on a new comments strategy. The current guidelines say journalists “may respond” to online reader comments, but debating any issues is off limits. Any reader concerns or complaints should not be addressed by the journalist; instead, they should be sent to the public editor for investigation. “We’re starting to have a conversation around just exactly what is the comment section for,” digital editor John Ferri says. “Should there be a conversation in it? Should we consider it content? All those questions are being discussed.”
Illustration by Erin McPhee.
Jon DeNunzio photographed by Maisi Julian Photography.
Barbara Kay photographed by Howard Kay.
by Davida Ander
Lindsay is a News Media Production Specialist - Multimedia at the Ryerson School of Journalism. Lindsay has been with the University for eleven years after graduating from the University with a degree in Journalism.