“It’s about the comments under my story.” For digital editors, there can surely be few phrases more likely to make the heart sink when uttered at close quarter.
Often, the words come from a reporter infuriated at the tone of the comments left under a story. The comments may be critical about the story. They may be critical about the reporter. They may be abusive about the people in the story. After a while, those commenting may well start turning on each other.
All of which puts a digital editor in a difficult position. Pre-moderation of comments is out of the question because of the legal precedent set which makes the website responsible for any comments it pre-approves. Reactive moderation comes with a whole other list of pitfalls: Start removing comments which might cause upset – to reporter or reader but which aren’t actually legally dodgy – and you run the risk of allegations of censorship at best, or provoke an even worse stream of consciousness from someone who enjoys useful four-letter words. Ban them and if they know their web, they’ll be back on within minutes under a new name and probably with a new IP address. Simples, it ain’t.
The more I think about it, the more I come to the following conclusion: Comments on stories really aren’t worth the hassle.
I don’t want to come to that conclusion. I like nothing more than the idea of readers absorbing a story then adding their own, thoughtful take. But does it really happen? On occasion, yes it does, but even in the places you might expect quite high-minded debate – such as The Guardian or The Times – the debate below a story rarely reflects the quality of work above it.
And if your regular commenters are prone to throwing around abuse, or making comments which are generally unpleasant and accusatory in tone, it’s surely unlikely that the sort of people you want commenting on your stories – ones with reasoned opinions, for example – will want to get involved. Indeed, does the flaming of a journalist’s integrity just because he’s written something someone disagrees with do anything other than scare other readers off? After all, you wouldn’t stick around in a pub very long if those around you were being rude and abusive to each other, would you?
One editor I know is a huge fan of comments, particularly on stories about people who have died because they usually elicit a number of tributes in the comments which he can then use in print. Nothing wrong with that – it’s an non-intrusive way to allow people to add to an article which has clearly moved them. But what happens when others wade into the discussion, saying the death of two teenagers will clearly be because the teenager will have been driving too fast? We wouldn’t allow it in print, we wouldn’t allow it on the radio – so why would we allow it online?
Another editor I know feels duty of care towards a reporter should take priority over the right of someone to comment offensively about the quality of the reporter’s work on their platform. Another who I used to work with still recounts with horror the time he found people plotting to turn up at a reporter’s house to say what they thought of his coverage of their football club – plotting on his website.
This isn’t an argument aimed at rebuilding the wall between journalist and reader – far from it. It’s just that I don’t see comments in stories doing anything to help build the relationship between journalist and reader.
If you look at a blog by a sports journalist, you’ll see a much higher quality of comment than you will under the same sports journalist’s stories elsewhere on the site – and the quality will be even higher if the sports journalist responds to the comments.
A journalist and a reader will get infinitely more out of an open relationship via Twitter than they will via comments under a story. Maybe it’s the 140-character limit keeping you brief, or maybe it’s because on social media you expect the journalist to see what you’ve said. Or maybe it’s the fact that on Twitter – and even more so on Facebook – you’re more likely to use your real name.
Ask yourself this: If you were banking on reaction suitable for use in a story, would you pin your hopes on the comments under a story or a thread started on the newspaper’s Facebook fan page? I know which I’d go for – and time and time again, Facebook comes out on top. Why? Perhaps because Facebook feels safer for people, or maybe it’s because, as journalists, we’re taking our discussion to the places where people are already socialising.
There are many other ways for building bridges between reporters and readers, of opening up the story-gathering process so that its more transparent. Ensuring you’re involved where people are already talking about your beat, patch or specialism – forums, for example, is surely a better way to spend time and energy than by monitoring the comments on a story.
At the moment, aren’t we making it a little too easy to arrive on a story, post a (frequently offensive) rant, then disappear off again, leaving other readers feeling unsure as to whether they want to return to your site again? If someone wants to interact with a reporter, why not just make it easier to email the reporter, or to follow them on Twitter – ways in which a conversation can be meaningful, beneficial to all – the commenter, the journalist and the audience at large.
In short, are comments on stories worth the hassle when there are so many better ways to interact? Or am I just having a bad day?