A few comments about comments

As readership increases, online news sites (it’s hard for me to call them newspapers anymore) are struggling with legal and ethical dilemmas involving reader comments. Our campus student media site, the Baker Orange, is certainly no exception. The staff recently adopted an online first policy for major stories, which has created an impressive spike in the number of online visitors. The spike has been accompanied by an increase in comments, many of which have been hateful, vindictive, obscene, unintelligent and/or racist.

potA few sites force readers to register before they are allowed to post comments, but this still does not ensure that a commenter uses his or her true identity. As the online age of journalism evolves, most users clearly prefer to post anonymously.

Minnesota Public Radio has an in-depth discussion of the issues. With or without registration, I have found the editorial choices are complex:

1. Turn off all comments. A recent essay appearing at gawker.com suggested that online newspapers are a more formal, official news source than blogs and thus should not allow comments. Overzealous readers often attach false, misleading or inflammatory comments that detract from the noble ideal of journalism. The problem with this suggestion is that it likely decreases readership.

2. Moderate closely, deleting any comments that do not enhance the original article and turning off comments for articles that generate too much hatred. This sounds great in theory, but many newspaper cannot afford to hire staff members who do nothing but monitor comments. Even at our tiny campus newspaper, the editor has been spending a disproportionate amount of time checking for inappropriate comments.

3. Use a laissez-faire approach that green lights all comments except those that blatantly disregard human decency. Because this policy is often financially easier and may be legally safer, many sites feel most comfortable with it. Ethically, though, the problem is that this policy undercuts the journalism ideal of seeking truth and reporting it. Many online comments are anything but truthful, and many people who make those comments would be lousy reporters because they don’t verify their claims or clearly disclose their sources.

Based on my observations in the last couple of years, I have no doubt that online comments drive readership. If a local story is really hot, some readers return multiple times just to read the most recent comments. But what is the ethical cost? As I survey the comments on the Baker Orange site, I have a hard time feeling as if they are generating healthy, intelligent debate that encourages an informed citizenry. And I don’t want editors to feel like guest hosts for the Jerry Springer show.

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~ by bakerumedia on September 18, 2009.

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