A recent caller to The Garden Island said she was concerned with our online comments on stories, columns and letters to the editor. Many, she said, were too negative. Too critical. Too nasty. And by publishing them, we were spreading negativity and, in a way, encouraging these people to continue such behavior. Why, she asked, do you allow those comments online?
Good question, one that’s been asked many times. As it’s a new year, let’s chat briefly about our online comments and how they work. First, our one paragraph when commenting offers this guideline:
“By participating in online discussions you acknowledge that you have agreed to the TERMS OF SERVICE. An insightful discussion of ideas and viewpoints is encouraged, but comments must be civil and in good taste, with no personal attacks. If your comments are inappropriate, you may be banned from posting. To report comments that you believe do not follow our guidelines, send us an email.”
That’s it. That’s not asking a lot. Of course, “civil and in good taste, with no personal attacks” does leave some degree of subjectivity. What’s civil and in good taste to one may be offensive and unreasonable to another. What’s a personal attack to one is merely an objective commentary to another.
The goal of our online comments is, as it states, to encourage insightful discussion of ideas and viewpoints. Discussion is good. Different viewpoints are good. We should be willing to listen to other viewpoints and disagree if we want to — and disagree in a way that is respectful. It doesn’t have to be mean-spirited. We don’t have to beat the other person up with a barrage of insults. We don’t have to “win” the argument.
All that said, the comments submitted on stories, columns and letters are reviewed by TGI staffers. The majority are approved. Perhaps that is where our recent caller would balk. She expressed an opinion that we approve too many negative comments. While we do deny some comments that are clearly nothing more than personal attacks — that include profanity, that are completely off-topic, that are filled with anger — we don’t want to muffle the discussion. We want to let people have their voice. We believe it provides a look at what people are thinking about issues. It gives us some insight, too, as to other perspectives to consider when covering a news story. A vibrant comments thread can promote positive public debate.
Anonymous comments continue to be an annoyance for many people. Why are they allowed? Some argue if people want to comment, they should give their real name, not some online moniker. Others will argue if you ban anonymous comments, you’ll lose many of those who comment. We do our best to watch out for trolls, folks who are doing nothing more than trying to stir things up with crazy comments and all sorts of allegations.
We might note that some newspapers have gotten away from allowing comments on stories. Just too nasty. Not worth the trouble. Too many angry people sounding off. One recent column in the Seattle Times generated such vitriol toward the columnist, the paper shutdown the thread.
TGI staffers have taken beatings in online comments. Some of those comments are nothing more than childish insults. “You suck, TGI!” “We hate you!” “What a rag!” Some will comment that this view is stupid. Some of the criticisms of our work are justified. We should be held to a higher level of accountability. We have learned from some of the comments on stories, and we have improved our efforts. Journalists do need thick skin, but even then, some say the negative comments posted online wear on them.
A few years ago, the Washington Post got rid of the comments section here’s what they had to say:
“In part, our decision was based on science. Researchers have found that when readers are exposed to uncivil, negative comments at the end of articles, they trust the content of the pieces less. (Scientists dubbed this the “nasty effect.”) A study by the Atlantic found that negative comments accompanying a news article caused readers to hold the article in lower esteem. In an increasingly competitive media environment, websites can ill afford to have their content and brands tarnished in this way.”
We are not looking to get rid of the comments section. We think it has value. We believe most of the commenters provide sound and responsible insight that is beneficial to community discussion and we welcome their input (though we wish they would write letters to the editor with their names and towns and phone numbers).
But, there are also many haters. Many who are negative. Many who criticize. Many who have nothing positive to say. Still, we don’t want to shut them out of the discussion because, while they are negative, it doesn’t mean their viewpoint on an issue is wrong. In some cases, they are justified in being upset.
Going into 2019, we don’t expect all commenters to be nice and polite. We don’t expect all commenters to be kind. That’s not reality. But we do ask you to be respectful. We do ask for common courtesy. We don’t believe that’s too much to ask, and we hope you don’t, either.
By the way, have a great 2019!