Would Political-News Websites Be Better Without Comments?

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National Journal
Brian Resnick
Sept. 24, 2013, 11:55 a.m.

It was a Sat­urday morn­ing, I was on duty, and Na­tion­al Journ­al had a story on Janet Na­pol­it­ano that was picked up across the Web. Un­leash the trolls.

For about an hour, I de­leted com­ment after com­ment on the then-Home­land Se­cur­ity sec­ret­ary that used every anti-gay epi­thet ima­gin­able, and some not-so ima­gin­able. (Na­pol­it­ano has nev­er com­men­ted on her sexu­al ori­ent­a­tion.) Very little of the con­ver­sa­tion was rel­ev­ant to the art­icle — a short pickup on a rev­el­a­tion that she does not use e-mail. What does that have to do with her ap­pear­ance or ori­ent­a­tion? Na­pol­it­ano was a po­lar­iz­ing fig­ure, worthy of de­bate, but not in these terms.

Grip­ing over com­ments isn’t any­thing new in me­dia, but few sites have yet to re­solve the prob­lem. Na­tion­al Journ­al‘s sis­ter site Quartz has just pi­on­eered an an­nota­tion fea­ture, which lets read­ers leave com­ments on in­di­vidu­al para­graphs. Good com­menters are en­dorsed, bad thoughts are kicked off. Gawker like­wise has spurred ef­forts to get com­menters more in­volved with the ma­ter­i­al by al­low­ing users to reb­log stor­ies with com­ment­ary. The idea be­hind both of these ef­forts is to lit­er­ally lift the com­ments out of the gut­ter and per­haps, be­cause they are more prom­in­ent on the page, the user will think through their thoughts a little more care­fully.

In either case, it takes a lot of ef­fort, and some bad com­ments are sure to still get through. At The At­lantic, an­oth­er NJ sis­ter pub­lic­a­tion, Bob Cohn, the top ed­it­or of the web­site, says it just takes man­power to do­mest­ic­ate the com­ment sec­tions. “Writers or ed­it­ors have to jump in­to the con­ver­sa­tion to keep it on track, or to mete out justice by re­mov­ing com­ments or even ban­ning the worst of­fend­ers,” he writes.

Which sounds great, un­til you have to de­lete hun­dreds of com­ments in a go.

And then there’s the oth­er side to it. Com­ments are con­tent on the site, con­tent that the site im­pli­citly ap­proves by al­low­ing it to stay. How does a 100-plus com­ment thread of po­lar­ized, sparsely in­formed re­sponses re­flect on their ad­ja­cent stor­ies?

There’s been some sci­ence on this lately. Moth­er Jones re­ports on re­cent re­search in­to trolling, and it boils down to this: Po­lar­ized com­ments po­lar­ize the read­er­ship. “It ap­peared that push­ing people’s emo­tion­al but­tons, through derog­at­ory com­ments, made them double down on their preex­ist­ing be­liefs,” Moth­er Jones ex­plained. So in­stead of act­ing as a salon to grow pub­lic un­der­stand­ing of a sub­ject and to re­con­cile con­flicts, com­ment boards can do a dis­ser­vice to the journ­al­ism they un­der­lie. (And it’s not like the journ­al­ism is ever without flaws. There are le­git­im­ate reas­ons to ques­tion an au­thor on sources or meth­ods or facts.)

Today, Pop­u­lar Sci­ence has de­cided to opt out of com­ments al­to­geth­er, writ­ing that “com­menters shape pub­lic opin­ion; pub­lic opin­ion shapes pub­lic policy; pub­lic policy shapes how and wheth­er and what re­search gets fun­ded — you start to see why we feel com­pelled to hit the ‘off’ switch.”

Ba­sic­ally, they’re say­ing that if the com­ments don’t fur­ther the in­ten­ded goal of journ­al­ism — in­form­ing the pub­lic in an in­tel­lec­tu­ally hon­est way — than why have them? It strikes a sim­il­ar tone to the de­bate over “false equi­val­ence,” the me­dia’s tend­ency to give both sides of an ar­gu­ment equal mer­it, without con­sid­er­ing that one side might be cat­egor­ic­ally wrong. One role of the me­dia is to be a dam to mis­in­form­a­tion, right? Pop­u­lar Sci­ence said com­ments are bad for sci­ence. Maybe they are bad for polit­ics, too.

This is tricky for me­dia or­gan­iz­a­tions, which are huge fans of the First Amend­ment. Cen­sor­ing the com­ments can there­fore seem hy­po­crit­ic­al. And I know that when I write, I do so with the un­der­stand­ing that my word is cer­tainly not the last on the top­ic. There has to be a way to do it bet­ter. In a re­cent piece in The New York Times magazine, Mi­chael Erard says that we need to re­think “the re­la­tion­ship between cre­at­ors and com­menters in more fun­da­ment­al ways.”

So, brave com­menters of Na­tion­al Journ­al, I have a chal­lenge for you. How can we make bet­ter com­ments on polit­ic­al-news sites? Yes, I know I just spent the last few para­graphs de­grad­ing you, but let’s have some op­tim­ism. If there is a pleas­ant com­ment­ing ex­per­i­ence on the In­ter­net, where is it? And how can we foster great­er un­der­stand­ing on a top­ic by en­ga­ging all of you?

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