If online comments cost too much, shut them down

Peter Gorrie

Peter GorrieNewspapers emphasize free expression and respectful, constructive dialogue when asked why they invite comments about online stories.

The opportunity to post also “engages” readers, they say. Which translates as: Faced with declining sales of their paper editions and desperate to present a bigger eyeball tally to online advertisers they’ll try anything to appear relevant and popular.

The strategy appears to be failing on that second count.

To date, the engagement, while it dwarfs the number of letters to the editor, has been marginal. While postings are almost always anonymous, most newspapers require participants to register their email address and what, in analogue times, was called a pen name. The Toronto Star, which opened its website to comments less than a year ago, says its 53,000 registrants average about 12,000 responses a week. Both totals — typical for mainstream newspapers — are barely discernible fractions of either the Star’s paper circulation or online hits.

It’s not clear how many other readers are drawn to the site by the comments — separate from the stories, photos and other content. Clearly though, the level of traffic they involve won’t do much for ad revenue.

Since, however, publishing the comments is relatively inexpensive — the cost of a few junior-level moderators — why not?

Here, things get blurrier.

Most comments are verbal jabs in an endless shouting match: They’re position statements — often angry, sometimes offensive, occasionally witty — not attempts to build a dialogue.

Their anonymity is mainly a consequence of volume. Newspapers would need to invest far more than they currently do to verify the posters in the careful way they vet letter writers. But it is also deemed a prized addition to a social networking culture that encourages invented personae and relationships.

Does that make online comments liberating or irresponsible? And if irresponsible, are they harmful?

Most papers make posters adhere to minimal rules, which prohibit offences such as libel and outright racism or homophobia, and employ the moderators to enforce them.

With little experience, minimal training, a torrent of messages to assess and uncertain guidelines, these poor souls approve a lot of questionable content and occasionally allow hateful or racist comments.

It’s generally assumed that disadvantaged people — the poor, racial minorities, the disabled, gays, women — would be most threatened if this online contagion were to spread. Perhaps, but, depending on the story and the newspaper, the attacks fly from all corners in all directions. Corporate executives are as likely as welfare moms to be skewered. Politicians of all stripes get smacked.

It would be helpful to know whether the rabid attacks influence non-posters. Do they harm those on the receiving end? Do they badly bruise the disadvantaged while leaving no marks on the powerful?

Diatribes clearly go too far for some papers, which — like The Globe and Mail on Middle East stories — declare certain topics off-limits. Things got so bad in Hawaii that last September, overwhelmed by what its publisher termed the “frequency and vileness” of postings, the Maui News axed them.

Online postings also raise the issue of quality and standards.

While some reporters happily count responses as proof of their work’s impact, others detest them. The Star’s Rosie DiManno had the comment option removed from her columns.

“One of the most interesting issues in newsrooms today is the new culture of the Web working within a traditional environment that has a lot of values attached to it,” says Kathy English, the Star’s public editor.

Those values include accuracy, thoroughness and fairness — qualities usually missing from online comments and anathema to the “democratic” culture of the Internet, where standards are dismissed as elitism and unfettered expression trumps thought.

Personal attacks go unchallenged; factual errors might be corrected by later posters — with no guarantee the correction is accurate. Reporters could weigh in but few relish a time-consuming dialogue of the deaf.

Talk radio and even letters pages aren’t immune. People simply want to hear, or see, themselves talk, even when they have nothing to say. This is probably more the case in this era of obsessive self-absorption than in the past, but technology also makes it effortless and offers instant gratification.

But conventional journalism has weakened its plea for standards by lowering its own. When The Washington Post’s public editor recently expressed concern about comments, several posters jeered the paper’s uncritical endorsement of the U.S.  government lies that accompanied the invasion of Iraq and its roster of ranting columnists.

“The fact of the matter is that your paper has supported the needless death of thousands of Americans,” one poster — anonymous of course — scolded. “That, to most of us, is what is rude.”

Safe to say this is not black and white. But the shade of gray is dark enough to require change. Newspapers should:

  • At the very least, as some have, move comments to a page separate from the story, so readers must take an additional step to see them.
  • Require comments in letter form with full identification that could appear in print or online.
  • End anonymity with a PayPal-like registration process that requires verification of a full name, address and email, and that the name appears on any comment.
  • Hire more moderators and ensure they vet comments more carefully.

Effective measures would cost, and as English asks: “With editorial resources being taxed, how much do we want to put into it?”

If the answer is “too little,” shut them down.

Peter Gorrie is a Toronto-based freelance writer who specializes in environment and energy issues. He is a current regular columnist and former environment reporter for the Toronto Star and has also worked in Ottawa, Yellowknife, Fort McMurray  and Edmonton.