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Comment sections must go

Ideally, a comment section on an online article should be an open environment where the general public can discuss the events in the news.

That is probably what most news organizations had in mind when they gave readers the ability to comment on stories, back when news websites first started appearing. One at a time, news outlets such as ESPN, USA Today and Time have started disabling anonymous comments. Anyone who has scrolled through a YouTube video comment section knows why.

It goes back to a 2010 article from the American Journalism Review, which called for an end to anonymous comments. According to the review, comment sections were filled with anger and often hate speech. Some organizations followed the recommendation, but the problem of out-of-control online comments is still very real, as shown by the recent events in Ferguson, Missouri.

It has been handled in many ways, either by shutting off comments entirely or making them invisible until approved. Shutting down comments poses some problems. It is the easiest solution because it eliminates the issue entirely. It also alienates readers, who were once invited to discuss their opinions, but now must do so elsewhere.

Then there’s comment moderation, which some websites have embraced. However, approving comments to be visible online takes extra time and effort, which today’s shrinking newsrooms are running short on.

Another route is to hide the comments behind a button, like the New York Times has, or put it farther down the page than the average reader is likely to scroll. Very little has helped; even requiring a Facebook account to comment doesn’t seem to stop people from posting toxic, often racist messages.

A visual metaphor highlighting the relationship between news organizations and anonymous comments.

A visual metaphor highlighting the relationship between news organizations and anonymous comments.

Ultimately, it’s a newspaper’s reputation that keeps it in business. It is unfortunate, but an anonymous racist comment really does reflect negatively on the paper and its readers. Maybe not directly, but what is the general public supposed to think when racist comments start showing up on their hometown newspaper’s website? Is the paper racist? At the very least, the reader who made the comment probably is.

I think there is a fine line between giving readers a space to express their reactions to current events and a platform from which they can attack each other. Racially charged crime stories aren’t the only articles that attract hostile comments. Even comments on special interest websites can get especially ugly.

Comment sections are not the democratizing, social engagement engines news organizations were hoping for. Plenty of news sites have already disabled comments; those that haven’t should.

Turn comment sections off before any more death threats are made, and before any more bigotry can give itself a platform. Media organizations should quit allowing immature, reactionary readers to damage their reputations any further.

_By Samuel Egan

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  1. September 29, 2014 at 6:54 pm

    I think this is a really interesting topic. The concept of comment sections was for viewers to receive feedback on their writing and hear what their audience has to say. Whether the feedback is positive or negative, people have the right to voice their opinions. In addition, comment sections are helpful as far as helping companies and publications improve. Comments that are constructive can help websites become better and answer questions. It’s difficult because comment section on places such as YouTube can be misused. People use the forum to bully and post hateful things. Overall, I think comment sections are a helpful tool when used properly.

  2. November 24, 2014 at 2:27 pm

    How ironic that I’m about to comment on your post.

    Now that I got that cheap joke out of the way, I have to disagree with you. As the first comment says, people have the right to voice their opinions. Whether those opinions are conveyed in an unprofessional and inappropriate way is the individual’s choice.

    I think if the comment on the story links to someone’s Facebook profile so anyone can see your face on the comment, people might think a little bit harder about what they are about to say. However, I still see the nasty and distasteful comments when news outlets use this strategy. I don’t think readers will think the news outlet agrees with those comments if they are left in. The generation of today kind of expects “internet trolls” to happen.

    In the end, I think the comment sections should be left on the websites because it gives a place for the reader to directly discuss the story.

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