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.
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