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. 

By Davida Ander, for the Ryerson Review of Journalism

“What’s your problem?”

“Isn’t it obvious? He’s an unemployed welfare bum.”

“Grow up.”

“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.”

These are just a handful of the comments immortalized for posterity on a November 2012 story on The Globe and Mail's website. That story, ironically, was about changes to the newspaper’s commenting policy intended to make discussions more civil and substantive. It was titled “What to Do When Online Comments Get Out of Hand.”

For most people who avoid wading into the swamp of insulting idiocy and irrelevance that characterizes most newspaper comment sections on the web, the question is more whether comments have ever been in hand. They seem more like the graffiti of the internet: uninformed, semi-literate scribblings on a bathroom stall.


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“We have a joke,” says Jonathan Kay, editor of the National Post's comment pages. “If you write an article about libertarian economic ideology, by the fifth comment there’s a guy arguing about whether Ayn Rand is a lesbian.” He’s fed up with some of the commentators he encounters, saying that they can often be angry and embittered.

Bitter and angry spew has led journalists like Barbara Kay, also of the Post and Jonathan’s mother, to stay far away from the comments section, and to converse with readers by email instead. “The comments section unfortunately sometimes attracts the bottom feeders of society. I never engage with people who write in the comments section after the column. People with a real argument to make, respectfully, write to me directly,” she says.

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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 guidelinessay 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.” 

At The Gazette in Montreal, editors are developing the comments strategy and moving in the direction of encouraging reporter response. “The strategy for various platforms is kind of being unrolled right now,” Thomas Ledwell, the social engagement editor, says. “We want to proceed with caution.”

The Globe has more lenient community guidelines, but they are still speckled with resistance. Writers are encouraged to engage with reasonable reader comments. “Given the time constraints of their jobs, however, they may not be able to do so,” the guidelines say. Stephen Northfield, until February the deputy managing editor of digital, says, “It’s, broadly speaking, encouraged at an institutional level, but it’s left up to the journalists themselves to decide on their own how much time they want to spend on it and how important it is.”

The CBC has been among the leaders in trying to effectively harness a rowdy commentariat. CBC contracts out its comment moderation to a Winnipeg-based company called ICUC Moderation Services Inc., which screens more than 300,000 comments per month on CBC stories. Last year, the broadcaster’s community team initiated a one-month pilot program, during which the ICUC team was asked to flag any conversations that could benefit from reporter interaction. Then the community team forwarded these comments to the appropriate department for response. The trial had limited success because ICUC moderators were only able to highlight a handful of comments on a daily basis, and with great difficulty. The CBC community team says it’s analyzing the results of the trial and continues to experiment with the comments section.

Several news organizations outside of Canada are a few steps ahead. At The Guardian, instructions to reporters diving into the comments are grounded and specific. Best practice guidelines ask journalists to reward clever reader contributions by responding, to include additional links when necessary, and to reveal personal interests if they please. “Participate in conversations about our content, and take responsibility for the conversations you start,” they recommend.

This article was originally published in Ryerson Review of Journalism and reprinted here with permission. To continue reading, please go to the RRJ website

 

Davida Ander is a soon-to-be graduate of the Ryerson journalism undergraduate program. She has written for the National Post, Jewish Tribune, Outdoor Fitness Magazine and The Eye Opener among other publications.