Tuesday, April 6, 2010

No comment.

While I was away, I was glad to see I am not the only one who thinks newspaper online comments are a mess. Leonard Pitts Jr. of the Miami Herald and Connie Schultz of the Cleveland Plain-Dealer last week called for a ban on anonymous comments—though the atmosphere on comments threads is so toxic I am not sure requiring names will truly improve it.

In theory, reader comments further the conversation, bring up different enlightened points of view, and so on. In reality, they are predictable and off-topic at best and racist and vile at worst. The Washington Post ombudsman, Andrew Alexander, wrote recently, “For every noxious comment, many more are astute and stimulating.” I would say the math goes the other way around. Eighty percent of the comments on any story involving struggling minority students attack parents. Some commenters put this nicely; others suggest that taking children away from their families would be a great first step. There is no topic so apolitical that determined commenters cannot turn it into a reason to rant against the president. (After a story about college completion rates: “When is BHusseinO going to release his academic records?”)

Websites announce that comments are monitored and offensive comments are removed. Ha. It seems you can say any atrociously insulting thing you want, as long as you do not swear. Is the comment “call the bambalance!!!!!” after a shooting in a black neighborhood in D.C. not racist because it did not include the n-word?

Newspapers don’t hire cavemen to write for them; why should they give them space in other ways? Why should a paper’s bandwidth be donated to defenses of date rape? Why should the standard be any less than what is used to accept letters for publication on the editorial page (be an identifiable human who makes an interesting, sane point)?

Chris Davenport at the Post recently blogged about a side effect of nasty comments: people becoming less willing to be written about in the paper. Who wants to open themselves up to such easy attacks? Even a little wedding feature will leave commenters ranting about how the couple should have taken their spoiled butts to the soup kitchen instead of throwing themselves a party.

Some people say that newspapers have an obligation to give a forum for readers to comment. But why does the bar need to be set so low? It’s the Internet; there is plenty of room for people to eviscerate the subjects of newspaper stories without the paper itself facilitating their venom. The only newspaper I have seen where the comments are consistently civil and interesting is the New York Times, which moderates heavily. For those of you who defend incivility: fine! Be nasty in your own house! If you choose to come to mine and tear up my furniture and insult my mother, as well as entire races of human beings, I will throw you out.


  1. An article about comments would be sad and lonely without a comment.
    So I will say (politely) that you are correct.
    One problem is the time and effort needed to weed out the brutes.
    And of course the tendency by some (not you) to delete uncongenial opinion.( But they would probably do that anyway, if so inclined.)
    I will also point out (politely) that you could have used some nasty left wing comments as examples also.
    But you knew someone would say that.

  2. I think a big part of the problem at my paper is that the policy is for reporters not to reply to comments or engage readers in the comments section. That forces it to be a one-way conversation and readers just kind of shout into the wind.

  3. I'd agree that a lot of those comments are pretty awful, but I don't really see any solution other than to require people to give names (which, like you said, would probably not do much to deter horrible things), and filter. Filter, filter, filter.

  4. "equest that commenting is turned off if it is too out of control."

    Linda's point is that it's always out of control.

  5. It's not just newspapers. When i worked for AOL, i had to spend a bit of time looking over the chatrooms which were at least as bad. I also read slashdot as well where i don't see the problem as much due to a moderation system where you can limit the comments to those who have been peer moderated as better (or sometimes worse), but there needs to be a critical mass of readers (and interest) for a system like that to work.

  6. Whooo... that's entertainment, I guess. I'm still not getting where Pearl Harbor and Japanese cryptographers come into play when one is discussing a DC shooting.

    The obviously ignorant comments don't give me nearly so much pause as the semi-coherent but crazy ones.

  7. I would be fine with heavily moderated comments; that's why I single out the Times for praise. I think good moderation is more important than real names.

  8. Linda, This is my first time reading your blog (I found the link on 'An Urban Teachers Education") and I have to say I found it surprising that you think that posters who "blame the parents" in articles about failing schools are somehow uncivilized and (possibly?) akin to racists and bigots. As a former teacher, I found that supportive parents were a crucial factor in student performance, and have said so before on blogs. In fact, studies show that students' SES level (basically, a description of their family) is the most important predictive factor in student performance. Anyway, I just wanted to point out that just because you disagree with a perspective doesn't mean that the people who espouse it (particularly concerned parents, teachers and members of the public) lack civility and need to be regulated.

    Looking forward to reading more of your blog in the future.

  9. Attorney, thanks for your comment. It is not racist to suggest that parental involvement is important in a child's education and development; certainly my own work has dealt with this issue thoroughly. It is, though, bigoted to—as a startling number of commenters do—suggest that as a race, black parents do not care about their children's education and we should just take kids away from their parents. Those are two different levels of "discussion," and sadly I see way too much of the latter.

    As an experiment, as soon as I saw your comment I looked at the article I had up on my screen, a Baltimore Sun piece about school turnaround. Here is one comment:

    "balto county is slowly becoming another balt city where schools have to raise the children neglected at home...all on west side ... correlations anyone?"

    ("west side" = shorthand for black.)