Sylvia Stead argues to keep them but adds: I would advocate tighter rules for certain topics.


By Sylvia Stead for The Globe and Mail

As a rule, journalists love feedback – concrete evidence that the fruit of their labour is not only finding an audience, but having an impact. And yet there is nothing quite as divisive as the comments that are posted directly to stories online.

For anyone not that familiar with them, think a mix of talk radio and the more heated debates conducted on social media. The views expressed are quick and, at times, emotional responses to the issue of the day. And on some subjects, such as politics and sports, they become agitated and partisan pretty quickly. (Much like the House of Commons during Question Period.)

The problem is that those doing the expressing seem to think everything should be up for debate – and that anything goes. Then, if a media outlet feels things have gone too far and decides to delete a comment, they are quick to rail against “political correctness” and “ideological bias.”

Opposing them are more temperate readers, along with many journalists and those they write about. This group looks at the racism, misogyny and extreme language often on display, and wonder just what comments add to a civil debate. Some would prefer to see them banned outright.

In reality, most comments are just fine: They can be heated, sarcastic and political, and still be perceptive, even uplifting, as well as add to the debate by challenging accepted wisdom.

But too many do go too far – becoming personal, racist and bordering on hate speech. The end result can be so toxic that several news outlets, including The Toronto Star, have simply dispensed with comments altogether (and, in return, been accused of going too far themselves).

The CBC has also announced changes to its comments function, including asking everyone to use their real name. This will be done through reregistering with a verifiable e-mail address or having people use their Facebook or Google+ sign-on. The National Post already requires users to log in using their Facebook account.

Not everyone appreciates the trend, such as a Globe subscriber from Edmonton: “I am writing to pre-empt what I anticipate to be increasing pressure for The Globe and Mail to remove the online comment facility for articles.

Continue reading this on The Globe and Mail website, where it was first published. 

Sylvia Stead is the Public Editor of the Globe and Mail.