Media Analysis Journal: To allow comments or not?

A sample online comment form. Image credit: ario_/flickr.

A sample online comment form. Image credit: ario_/flickr.

As the line between news producer and news consumer blurs, traditional journalistic enterprises (newspapers, television stations, and the like) face a difficult decision when navigating the new media world. Should they permit readers to post comments, blog-style, to their stories? As those familiar with new media know, either choice carries distinct benefits and drawbacks. Permitting comments increases audience engagement and can keep users coming back for more, but risks harming the whole site’s atmosphere if commentary gets out of control. On the other hand, barring comments stops users from posting harmful content, but also restricts more constructive interactions.

Although some journalists use these same outlets to interact with readers, the practice is controversial. In standard journalism, reporters are expected to remain objective and refrain from injecting personal views into their work. Although many do so effectively, most readers can recall seeing stories in all media types that seemed biased or incomplete. Even the best journalists are human, with emotions and preconceived ideas like everyone else. Participating in online comment threads can be risky; it could draw reporters into making statements on issues they later regret. At worst, journalists participating in online discussions could be drawn into flame wars, obviously a situation to avoid.

Different outlets have adopted different approaches toward comments. Some permit totally unfettered commentary, with everything that may include. Others use moderators with the power to block certain forms of egregious abuse, while still others require users to register with the site, knowing full well that determined users can easily bypass such restrictions by providing false data. Perhaps the most representative, new-media-based approaches to comment management requires commenters to post through Facebook. In theory, this seems to deal with the problem of anonymity, but users once again can surmount this boundary by creating single-purpose Facebook accounts exclusively for sites that require them.

In 2011, New York University’s Tim Libert examined trends in comments on various news and technology websites, including CNN, the New York Times, and MSNBC. The Poynter Institute’s Steve Myers summed up Libert’s findings in a blog post. Among other findings, Libert found that Times commenters contributed a higher level of communication than those on other outlets, and that MSNBC commenters were more likely to give reasons for disagreeing. Dishearteningly, though, Libert also found numerous instances of degrading or violent comments. Such material raises real questions for many news agencies about whether the pros of permitting online comments outweigh the cons.

Perhaps the most desirable option in a field rife with imperfection is to permit online commentary with careful moderation, using an interface that goes as far as possible to establish identity. As Facebook’s Julie Zhuo wrote in a New York Times op-ed in 2010, “People — even ordinary, good people — often change their behavior in radical ways” when placed in an anonymous environment, a phenomenon called the online disinhibition effect. Zhuo proposes a community-based rating system to help deter Internet trolls, bringing the virtues of old and new new media together. Nonetheless, establishing identity in new media, unlike face-to-face contact, is far easier said than done. As elsewhere in the technological sphere, the wide-open channels of new new media have created problems even as they resolve others.

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