The issue of comments on news stories was itself in the news again this week. Popular Science magazine editors finally got fed up with partisan soldiers sabotaging discussion of, well, popular science and decided to ban comments online.
We all understand the urge. There isn’t an editor or publisher among us who hasn’t grappled with this issue to one degree or another. Mention the president and someone is likely to type the “n” word in response. Write a thoughtful piece about health care in America and it’s off to the races in the comment section. Even a simple story about a new program at the local school is likely to spark unreasonable outrage that poisons the debate.
All of us wish we could make people be more reasonable and all of us wonder whether those vile comments are hurting our credibility. I would argue the comments reflect a segment of the community and our job is to engage the entire community. Our goal should be maintaining a safe space for all and keeping perspective – not letting a couple of very loud voices pretend to speak for everyone.
I think the answer is to steer the conversation and moderate it in keeping with community values. …
Anchorage Press reporter Scott Christansen pointed me in the direction of this thoughtful and interesting idea from long-time Anchorage journalist Howard Weaver. As you can see, he’s suggesting users be allowed to rank comments in terms of their usefulness or thoughtfulness. Then readers could set their account to see all of the debate or only those ranked over, say 6 on a 1-10 scale. While I don’t know that Townnews currently offers such a system, I’m sure it’s technically possible. I would love to see a local experiment like that.
University of Calgary researcher Marie-Claire Shanahan makes a very compelling argument for why all this is worth it. She suggests Popular Science is copping out, noting that one of the big problems in our world is the lack of understanding of all things science. To give up the debate is to cede it to the wackos.
At the Half Moon Bay Review, we allow comments the moment they are posted, but we monitor them constantly. We probably delete fewer than 10 percent of those comments. I usually email commenters to tell them why I have deleted their comments and invite them to try again without the offensive comments. I tell them they made valuable contributions to the debate but that they diluted the impact of what they were trying to say by calling an adversary a “punk” or whatever. It’s time-consuming and I confess it doesn’t always work perfectly. But you might be surprised how often the bile is replaced by something more palatable. I find that people – most people – just want to be heard. Hear them out and ask for something better.
That’s my take, anyway.