Online comments “messy and flawed” but important, says Ingram

The Globe and Mail‘s tech blogger and recently appointed communities editor, Mathew Ingram, digs into the many issues surrounding online comments on news stories in a recent blog post.

His post, “Comments on news stories: good or bad?”, mentions some of the things the Globe has/is considering for its comments (including a comment rating system and requiring full names from commenters), addresses journalists and reader concerns and explains his personal view on the value of comments. He writes:

“Just for the record, my view — one that I believe the Globe shares — is that the ability to comment on a news story or a column or a blog is a fundamental requirement of any modern media entity. In the past, reader feedback was limited to a handful of letters to the editor or perhaps a phone call or a comment to an editor or writer at a cocktail party or coffee shop. The Web allows us to open that ability up to virtually anyone, and I believe that doing so, on balance, has a lot more positive results than negative ones — not just for us, but for society in general. Yes, we get nasty comments; but we also get many others that are smart, insightful, touching and useful.

In that sense, comments are a little like democracy: messy and often flawed in practice, but still important in principle. As Winston Churchill said, it’s the worst possible means of government — except for all the others.

The discussion continues at Ingram’s personal blog as well.

These are issues that many news sites are grappling with. The Toronto Star, for example, decided to change its comment policy and no longer allows comments on its online Web Forum signed with pseudonyms.

Ingram also points to the issues B.C.-based online magazine, The Tyee, had with comments, and the way its editors opened up the discussion for debate on the site. Tyee editors ultimately changed the site’s policy to include stricter moderation and an editor’s ranking of “best comments.”

Here at J-Source, we’ve also been thinking a lot about comments lately. J-Source editor-in-chief Ivor Shapiro added his thoughts in this comment earlier in November:

“Members of J-Source’s editorial masthead have struggled with this issue since the site’s birth. No one wants to stifle expression, but the idea of requiring commenters to post with real names, as well (of course) as conforming to standards of discourse as spelled out in our comments policy, has some appeal to some of us, for the reasons described above.

Our comments policy already includes the following line: “Please sign your post unless there is a sound and clear reason for anonymity.” At this point, it’s a request, not a requirement. But there’s a case to be made for drawing a stricter line. What do others think?

We are in the process of considering changes to our comments policy to ensure discussion focuses on the journalism issues at hand and stays away from the characteristics of other commenters, editors or writers.

These changes are in process, so please feel free to share your thoughts.