We have good commenters, but newspapers aren’t so lucky

Good journalism often isn’t matched by thoughtful feedback at many websites

What to do with ugly comments on blogs and newspaper websites? It’s getting so the great innovation of sharing news and ideas online is being tarnished by the trash talk that visits posts on many sites. For me, it takes away from the experience, but to others perhaps it’s the price of an open internet.

Last week I couldn’t help but notice a large announcement just inside the front cover of The Province newspaper. A new online commenting system was now in place at their website "that does away with anonymous comments." Booyah to that, I thought to myself.

We tried leaving things wide open. It didn’t work. As we heard from readers, the gains made in speed and convenience came at the cost of having to endure abusive comments that spoiled the discussion.

I was encouraged, and expected that perhaps I could go to the site and get some more respectful dialogue. What I got was more of the same, with readers covering the page with more asinine comments. It really makes me respect the tone of comments we get here at CityCaucus.com. Maybe they’re not always great, but it has been important to us that they’re not personal attacks. Those who comment here tend to stick to the issues, and add to the discussion.

There’s a reason, I think, for this. First, we set out in the beginning to manage abusive comments. While we didn’t get many, the few we did were quickly removed from our pages. Smears also are dealt with swiftly as much as possible, regardless of who they might be about. The other reason we have better comments (aside from our readers being pretty smart!) is simply due to volume. Most newspapers get far more traffic than we do here.

Somehow even big sites can keep a lid on dumb reader comments. I note that Canwest’s flagship National Post newspaper actually has some good (and some silly) comments. The Globe and Mail can have some good discussions, but it can also get nasty. Sites like TheTyee.ca, however, are usually full of predictable attacks on anyone who doesn’t agree with their politics.

It’s really hard to manage this stuff, but I think that newspapers especially must get in the habit somehow of keeping the dialogue civil. Drive-by attacks by website commenters run the risk of spreading so much mistrust and hate that it will become impossible to govern effectively. Look no further than the rancor stirred up stateside by Tea Party activism.

I spotted a recent column in the North Shore News by writer Bill Bell. He has observed a degrading tone in the emails he receives from friends and colleagues.

I fear for our American cousins’ mental health.

Every day I receive numerous e-mails from people I know from the United States; ordinary folk for the most part, they come from a broad cross-section of the political spectrum, from left wing democrat to republican to libertarian. For the most part, the vast majority are not all that political.

Yet, over the past few years, I’ve noticed a growing trend of ultra-right-wing e-mail diatribes being sent my way. It started with the election of President Barack Obama, became worse with the American health care debate and went well beyond mean and nasty over Arizona’s new law dealing with illegal immigrants.

Now I don’t use the word "diatribe" lightly. These e-mails are laced with a combination of racial bigotry, breast-thumping American patriotism and a great propensity to distort facts and in some cases fabricate history to prove their points. More importantly, they use scare tactics to incite hate.

Bell has flagged a real and present danger of our open and anonymous internet. We are finding an ability to hide behind the anonymity of commenting to bare our fangs to everyone who doesn’t agree with us. It’s unlikely you would do the same thing to someone’s face as you might do behind the mask of your keyboard.

A speaker I like to quote is an elected official from Metro Portland, Oregon. His name is Councilor Robert Liberty, and when he came to Vancouver a few years back he told an audience that "controversy is good" when it came to dealing with public issues, because "it means that people are paying attention." But, he implored, even if we disagree the conversation must always remain respectful.

That is a standard that is rarely achieved in our wild west world of anonymous comments.

– post by Mike

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  • landlord

    “… the tone of comments we get here at CityCaucus.com. Maybe they’re not always great…”.
    Not “great”? I beg your pardon? I’ve been good.
    Nothing says you have to publish every comment, but people have died to defend freedom of speech, not freedom of polite speech.
    Intelligent readers are past masters at sorting the wheat from the chaff and must be relied upon to do so.
    It’s like open-mike night at the stand-up club. Some of the material is sure-fire, but not much. Hecklers are a vital ingredient.
    What’s the alternative? Groupthink?

  • landlord, you’re always welcome here on open-mike night.

  • John

    I’ll never forget a comment made by my grade 11 English teacher. He warned us: “75% of the people in this world are stupid.” Internet comments prove the veracity of that statistic.

  • Did 3/4 of your class just walk out? It must have left them feeling pretty dejected.

  • Adam O’Neill

    I think you hit the nail on the head with your over-all site traffic being the key difference in quality comments between yours(and other’s) smaller sites and those of major papers.
    People that are truly interested in the subject of communities are seeking it out by RSSing their favourite sites and by clicking links from other specific articles.
    The big paper sites are full of folks who read the paper and their areas of interest might focus on other issues,
    ie. Wrestling and UFC….
    That was a bit of a poke, couldn’t resist.

  • John

    The ones that protested were the dumbest in the room. 🙂