Dispatches from the living amongst journalism's walking dead

Devil’s advocate: Like it or not, site comments represent the community

All of the talk here and elsewhere on news site comments lately has had my brain working overtime. It’s obvious from all the, heh, commentary, that the content of news website comments is a big thorn in the side of most journalists and steadfast news junkies. I hear about it every day.

“They’re toxic.”

“That’s not conversation.”

“They don’t represent the community at all.”

Or do they?

It isn’t a possibility I as a member of the human race would like to face, but what if these comments that we insist only come from fringe corners of the mean old interwebs really do represent our communities?

Consider this… When I encounter particularly prolific, appalling or trollish accounts on Cincinnati.Com, I’ll look up their IP address to see if they’re posting from our coverage area. In these random hunts, I have never found one that wasn’t local.

For better or worse, these members do represent part of the readership we claim to serve. As ugly as it might be, they are part of the fabric of this community, so should we as a news organization and conversation hub be trying to suppress their opinions?

We know, at the very least, they represent the most vocal and opinionated elements of the community. They simply care more than those who oppose them.

So how much responsibility does the community itself bear for allowing toxic, racist, partisan trolls to represent the coverage area at large? If the rest of the community has a problem with their viewpoints, registration on Cincinnati.Com is free. Why not take them on? At the very least, you to are free to correct them and share your views, too. You can’t let the crazies win.

I don’t necessarily believe this, of course. I know good moderation, staff interaction and better comment tools can help shape comments into conversation. These are, however, the sort of questions we have to be asking ourselves if we as journalists really want to be part of the communities in which we live and work.

“These people” are out there. Some are subscribers. All are readers. Chew on that for a bit and let me know what you think.

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3 Comments

  1. I think, as you say, they are the most opinionated people. And more level-headed, rational folks might not want to be drawn into a flame war over something as simple as a story.

    The dilemma for folks like you, as a moderator, is how to deal with these comments while keeping the authenticity of the site and the community intact. Is that a consideration? By banning users, removing comments and trying to drive meaningful discussion, are you diluting the point of comment boards?

    I'm no advocate of some of the crazy things people write, but if that is indeed the feeling of the community, do journalists have a responsibility to consider that?

    • I think that preserving the authenticity of a comment board should be a priority of moderation, but I doubt it is in most places. To truly do this right, a moderator would have to have read the majority of the comments on a forum to determine the players/opinions involved and decide who's just starting trouble. Most don't. I know in our moderation system (Pluck) we see reported problem comments out of their original context , which I think makes them more likely to fall prey to a knee-jerk removal.

  2. I think that preserving the authenticity of a comment board should be a priority of moderation, but I doubt it is in most places. To truly do this right, a moderator would have to have read the majority of the comments on a forum to determine the players/opinions involved and decide who’s just starting trouble. Most don’t. I know in our moderation system (Pluck) we see reported problem comments out of their original context , which I think makes them more likely to fall prey to a knee-jerk removal.

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