News: ‘No Comment’

What if news organizations closed all online story comments? Is it too late to turn them off?In recent years, online story comments have become a way for journalists (read, news businesses) to say that they connect with readers (read, consumers). More importantly, these businesses say, comments allow readers to feel like they are contributing to the news cycle. And, commenting on a story connects users with the news outlet’s brand.

Another camp that supports online story comments says that the interaction between users/journalists and users/users leads our society to the great Public Sphere, a democratic notion of civic engagement, enlightened consumers, and open discourse.

None of these arguments are new.

Nor is the argument about whether online comments are useful for reporters to find sources, for people to feel engaged with their local media, for businesses to attract and keep advertisers, or whether online comments actually do add to democracy. And I’m not interested in having these arguments, either.

My questions

Instead, I want to know: What would happen if news organizations shut off online comments for good? Have online comments become viewed as such a “right of the media user” that by turning them off now, users would bolt or revolt? (I wonder if either of those things would really happen and I have no idea what it would look like if users actually left or fought their local news outlets.)

Debate about online comments has revealed the polarization of comments — and those who post them. Reasonable persons should not expect to find a range of views in these comments. People with strong positions one way or another on an issue are more likely to express themselves — and express themselves with more vigor.

Trolls live here, too. Online comments are ripe with the same users going back and forth in a war over ideology, regurgitating decades-old arguments on welfare, race, crime, taxes and (insert any public debate from the 1980s here).

How do reporters feel?

Most reporters I speak with are either agnostic about the online comments, either reading them sometimes or never at all. Some say the comments give them new angles and sources, but few have said the comments contribute much (if at all) to how newsrooms cover topics. (Journalists are professionals, after all, reporters say, and they know how to report on news. Who needs no stinkin’ online comment to do that?)

The online comment has seemed to become synonymous with a sense of purpose and naturalized within contemporary news culture. Even the dumbest news story — this one from the Chicago Tribune about a Wal-Mart shopper who allegedly pepper sprayed fellow Black Friday shoppers — has the ability for commenting. And, at this point, the story has 17 comments.

But what the hell is there to say about this story? Granted, the Rebecca Black “Friday” song got millions of comments on YouTube, mostly of people calling her “retarded,” but news doesn’t require more interesting discussion?


A Case

Here are some comments from the link above (there was debate among users about the newspaper’s use of the word “alleged”):

User A: assault is assault if she felt she was in danger in a store leave but do not use pepper spray. next time maybe a gun or a knife will be used. these stores are to blame for the hipe and telling you we only have so many so hurry and be the fool no mather what

User B: Newspapers don’t make declarative statements on the guilt/innocence until the court rules one way or the other.  Even the PSU victims are “alleged” and so is the nutcase who allegedly shot the AZ congresswoman.

User C: Lighten up, Francis.  You misunderstood what she said.  She’s commenting on why the paper would use the word “alleged” when it’s obvious she did it.  Unfortunately, though, Kathleen, newspapers aren’t allowed to say otherwise.

User D: Walmart gave out tickets for these door busters so obviously she had a ticket so why pepper-spray other customers.  What is alleged here?  People were pepper-sprayed and she admits to it.  Case closed.

So what’s interesting is that the users are debating about the news organization’s policy and the meaning being the word alleged. But there is another discussion happening in this comment feed, specifically surrounding a description by the newspaper that the suspect who did the spraying was “a Latina in her 30s, about 5 feet, 3 inches tall and weighing 140 pounds. She was wearing black pants and a black sweater at the time of the assault.”

User D: If the subject was black and not “Latina” this comment board would not exist.

User E: Deport her.

User F: What apologist BS.  The only thing you left out was trying to spin it by saying that in “latin” cultures it’s normal for people to be this aggressive for material things.

It is interesting how the mention of a race in the story leads to conversation in the comments about culture. And, in the similar vein as the other comment debate above, there is mention of the news organization’s decision to open comments for this story based, in part, on race.

What’s happening here?

My own concerns about the nature of online news comments emerged when I started reading the comments section of the local Press-Citizen. No one in this town would seem surprised that the PC would get yet another blogged complaint. It is, of course, the local paper and all local papers seem to get hit for even publishing. (One of the local papers I worked for called the Journal was often referred to by the lovely public as a “Urinal.”)

But some users seem to love being able to say whatever they want whenever they want to on online news sites, and the PC is no exception. Comment rules may prevent people from outright slander or posting nigger or any other term, but users seem to get around this by changing their discourse. Let’s talk about culture, not skin color, for instance.

Recently, the local Gazette made changes to its commenting policy, restricting comments to non-crime or non-controversial stories. Comments are often closed when stories deal with local persons by name or personalities in which discussions become overtly personal or mean.

But this morning, someone seemed to forget to close comments on this story about a shooting. The users noticed:

User A: Shocked that comments aren’t closed for this post. Did someone forget to turn them off?

User B: Yes they forgot to shut them off, but I am sure commenting won’t last long. No commenting on anything that has to do with crime. Kind of sad that censorship is alive and well in Cedar Rapids.

User C: A shooting in CR is not news anymore. The real news is that we get to comment on it. Since Lyle [the editor] rode in, the commenting on crime came to halt. For a newspaper that pushes open records and free speech, the commenting ban, or censoring of it is a mystery.

Those were some of the comments by 9:40 a.m. (Take a look at a PDF of the comments here.) One noted hearing that the victim had died on the way to the hospital. Another said he was glad the shooting hadn’t happened in one neighborhood in particular that has seen its share of crime in the past.

But, by 10:39 a.m. (when I checked next), the comments were closed.

If the comments had been left open, it would be interesting to see where the conversation would have gone. Or maybe not.

I suspect that — somehow — the conversation would have turned to either race, culture, geography, (insert any public debate from the 1980s). Maybe the convo would have spun off from the mere mention of the neighborhood that didn’t get the crime this time and that would have started the debate. I don’t know that, I suppose, I am just guessing.

What do comments mean?

But more interesting than where the conversation could have gone is where it did go — the seemingly clear notion that news users have a voice and that it should be heard. Who gave them that belief? Where does that sense of power come from? And why was it created?

Do these people forget that the reason they have the ability (that a programmer made it possible) for them to comment on stories was to build hits to build advertising? In the past, the public had the “right” to share their ideas in letters to the editor. But even in that case, the journalists chose which ones published or perished.

So wherever these comments take us — from an online race war to hurtful comments about people to debates about newsroom decisions to interactions that may spread democracy — what is their cultural value?

And, more importantly, what have those values done to the news business in terms of if these comments are ever shut off? That is, if the public lets us.