By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

How to drain the cesspool of news-site comments

I’m speaking to Professor Nick Daniloff’s Journalism Ethics and Issues class at Northeastern University tomorrow. Since the topic may be of general interest, I thought I’d post the slides in advance.

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  1. Dan, very interesting, I’d like to read the whole thing.

    I’m a big fan of Reddit’s comments, which has a simple voting system that seems to work very well and relies on users to police.

  2. Rather timely — we had a rather interesting commenting thread last week on after a Level 3 sex offender re-registered in town. He’s the guy who cut off his GPS and fled north last winter. Graftonites threw him a welcome home party in our commenting section and he fired back — until one of his victims entered the fray.

    Quite a bit harsher than our usual comments, but definitely reflected the mood of the community.

  3. Interesting slides, especially the question of whether online comments are “so 2005.” When I put links to my blog posts on Facebook, I get a lot of FB comments from people who apparently refuse to post comments on the blog itself. I also get much more responses via Twitter.

    Theories: 1.) People don’t think bloggers necessarily read comments, so they use a more direct approach. 2.) Readers want to have their say without being attacked by other commenters, even if it means their audience is just me. 3.) Readers are so turned off by the tone of website comments in general that they don’t even want to look at them.

  4. Adam Riglian

    I think the question you pose in the last slide is an important one. If I had to answer it, I’d say that while they may not have outlived their usefulness, there are certainly better alternatives.

    I still think the real names approach is one of the only proven ways to prevent the inevitable race to the lowest common denominator in comments sections. Without them, it’s only a matter of time before Godwin’s Law or “insert-politician-here is the antichrist” rears its head.

    Another question worth considering is how do news sites engage quality readers in comments sections? Is it through a community manager (an expense many can’t afford) or some other effort?

  5. Excellent points, Dan (you know that this topic is a big one for me.) However, a couple of additions: Facebook does not necessarily foster civil dialogue. look up the recent case of the little girl from the Detroit suburb who was bullied by a neighbor on Facebook–even after she passed away. The neighbor was not anonymous, and had to move from the neighborhood, but kept up the bullying. There are a lot of pages on Facebook that are sexist, racist, and could be considered forms of defamation as well–I’m thinking of one that called a young man a “rapist” by an ex-girlfriend, even though he did not commit a crime.

    When people do not fully understand the consequences of their actions, do not understand libel, or think simply that because it’s on a social network, it’s ok, then it’s hardly a civil environment….

    As for newspaper comments: I know they were particularly interesting here in Easthampton during the mayoral election. When it came to anonymous comments, we all knew who was saying what because their rhetoric spilled over on to lawn signs. I got drawn in by a friend who worked for one of the campaigns (mostly because I own asbestos jammies) and was able to bring up points in comments regarding what is/is not ethical once someone holds the office of mayor.

    We also had a particularly racist comment that was flagged by several of us and removed. so that function on the site works well.

    The reasons for the “cesspool” happening, I’d say, has more to do with the level of education of the site users–as in who has the time during the day to participate. It might not be your most high-brow individuals, so more totalitarian community policies might be the best bet. Seriously. Even the New York Times, where the quality of comments is far superior than any local paper, has policies.

  6. Rhea Becker

    As you require full names to comment, so should news sites. This is a real pet peeve of mine. Horrible comments get made under the name of, what –freedom of speech?

  7. BP Myers

    Can’t help but think those wringing their hands over anonymous comments on news sites simply don’t like what they’re reading. That the majority of incendiary comments seems to come from the right, and most of the hand wringing comes from the left, only underscores that belief.

    Don’t like reading anonymous Internet comments? Don’t read them. But I suspect we’re going to miss the ability to make them once the do-gooders take them away.

    • Dan Kennedy

      @BP: I think there will always be plenty of sites that allow anonymous comments. What’s rare is a site that allows them and manages them well, like the New Haven Independent. I understand both sides of the anonymous-or-not debate, but in the end I decided I was more comfortable with real names. If someone wants to send me an anonymous tip, I’m all ears.

  8. L.K. Collins

    My view of the real name/screen name issue remains that it is a straw man behind which management can hide. After all, isn’t “John J. Johnson” just a name tagged to a specific individual just like a screen name?

    The tone of a blog is best set by the management consistently exercising a standard that discourages flame wars and insults, and immediate action to redirect or delete the offending elements of the conversation.

    I will say that if someone does attempt to insult me, I WILL respond to it; that the insulter doesn’t like my response is not my problem.

    I am not, and will not, be offended by someone disagreeing with my position. That does not mean, however, that I will refrain from calling attention to inconsistency or fallacy, or even a poster’s self-indulgence, if I feel posting can move the conversation. My response may be somewhat pointed.

    Dan has done a good job of getting control of his blog. We need to recognize that it took time and patience to achieve as well as the cooperation of the blog’s participants.

    Dan will cite is use of “real names” as instrumental. I disagree.

    I see the the success deriving from, more likely, the consistent application of the delete function and the patience to allow the corrective action actually to correct the problem.

  9. Christian Avard

    What’s the David Brudnoy rule? I’m curious.

    • Dan Kennedy

      @Christian: Callers (commenters) are much dumber than listeners (readers). So how do you serve one constituency without alienating the other? Although the better solution is to raise the level of discourse so the Brudnoy rule doesn’t apply. As we’ve all done here!

  10. Jeff Fabijanic

    First, I don’t think that one can reasonably claim that Facebook fosters ‘civil’ dialogue, and it’s pretty naive to believe that FB account names are all real. But in any case, Facebook and Twitter, while undeniably popular today, are rather recent arrivals. There’s no reason to believe they or the models of communications they represent will be in wide use a few years from now. After all, less than ten years ago many thought America Online was poised to dominate the Internet! It’s early days still for the cyber-scene.

    More importantly, I am surprised that you make no mention in your slides of some of the online sites which have concerned themselves much more directly (and I would posit, successfully) with fostering communities of discourse which are open, yet also civil and relevant. Reddit, mentioned above by Richard, is quickly becoming more widely known (here in New England at any rate). And Slashdot, of course, is the source of much innovation in this area. I believe that over time, versions of the mechanisms used on these sites (open content-mgmt, peer-moderation, meta-moderation) will become ubiquitous in online news and commentary sites.

    • Dan Kennedy

      @Jeff: My talk concerns local and regional news organizations, not tech or aggregators. I hardly think it needs to be said that important online services today can disappear very quickly. Still remember writing about what it was like to use Prodigy to follow the 1992 election returns.

  11. Jeff Fabijanic

    I thought your talk was to those involved in or studying local or regional news organizations, but was about online community engagement. It seems to me that the problem parameters for these organizations are much the same as for the sites I mentioned. All are drawing readers of diverse backgrounds, opinions, and manners. All seek to encourage or sustain ongoing discourse which advances broader and fuller understanding of the topics at hand. And they all want to accomplish this while engaging the attention of current readers and attracting new ones.

    If you were giving a talk about some other topic salient to this industry – say, the challenge of attracting young talent, or of managing multiple format delivery streams (paper, web, podcast, etc), I assume you wouldn’t ignore the successful strategies of other similar-but-not-identical groups.

    What is there about this topic that makes it reasonable to reference Facebook and Twitter (whose user interaction models are profoundly different from those of news organizations), but not Slashdot (whose models are nearly identical to them)?

    • Dan Kennedy

      @Jeff: I’m talking to students — read what I wrote. Undergraduates. Glad you enjoy Slashdot.

  12. I went to a review policy on most of my journals. Incendiary comments are always published unless they are potentially defamatory. As some of the major news networks and folks like WMUR and the Union Leader have banned me (and others) from commenting I feel it is my duty to allow free and open discourse.

    BTW, there is a matter of integrity coming up next week here in Boston:

    25 JANUARY 2012
    KingCast says even if Joanna Marinova is a Limited Purpose Public Figure the Boston Herald and Jessica Van Sack Acted with Actual Malice.

  13. Jeff Fabijanic

    Don’t be snarky, Dan. I did read what you wrote. Read what I wrote – “those [who may someday be] involved in or studying local or regional news”. Sounds like a reasonable description of your audience.

    I’m disappointed by the apparent implication that the only models of “online community” that undergraduates would be capable of relating to are Facebook or Twitter. Especially when myself and others have pointed out that the success of these models in promoting ‘civil’ discourse is debatable at best. A big part of my professional life is spent working with undergraduates. Their experiences are broader than that.

    Imo, news site comment sections are generally a mess, not because they don’t work like Facebook or Twitter, or because people are just basically monsters – but because traditional news organizations have failed to adapt mechanisms that have been shown to be effective for similar cyber-spaces. ie, Poorly run meetings do not invalidate the utility of Roberts Rules of Order. Corrupt elections do not invalidate the idea or representative democracy. Uncivil and unorganized news comment sections are failures of implementation, not format.

  14. Mike Benedict

    @Jeff Fabijanic wrote: “Uncivil and unorganized news comment sections are failures of implementation, not format.”

    I’d suggest they are failures of culture. The MSM is still run by folks who in general aren’t really interested in what the public thinks.

    That’s not literally true. They do care, of course. But they don’t see dealing with the one-offs as part and parcel of the job. Refereeing the melee isn’t what they signed up to do. I sometimes wonder whether certain editorial writers/columnists ever have conversations with anyone but other editorial writers/columnists. Culturally, the world of the “thought leaders” is very small — and they do everything they can to keep it that way.

  15. Integrity must start at the top, as noted in open court 2 days ago in Marinova v. Herald.


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