How to bring civility to comments

by Carl Natale on September 17, 2010

Argue

Can't we just get along?

Reader comments are like the weather. Everyone loves to complain about it. But no one has a clue about how it works.

But Howard Owens is one of the pioneers in online news. I’ve been following his thoughts since I began my online career. He has a strong grasp of strategy. So when Howard has something to say about reader comments, I take notice.

The latest poster child of the clueless approach newspapers take to comments is an otherwise very fine newspaper — the Dessert News.

The DN is going to limit people to only two comments per day per story.

Clueless.

via Hammering on comments again | Howard Owens.

The reason for the two comment limit is to try to keep the job of moderating comments manageable. And by moderating, they mean pre-screening. Nothing gets published until someone at the paper reads and approves it. Which is a time suck. So limit the comments so the paper doesn’t have to hire anyone else.

I agree with Howard. Clueless. I also agree with Howard when he says comments are conversation and engagement. Well, they should be.

Reader comments rarely amount to conversation and engagement. Don’t even kid yourself into thinking they are about community.

First, we have the newspaper story. The reporter writes the story and the newspaper broadcasts it. Maybe you can argue that it’s a product of conversation between reporters and sources. But it’s presented to the readers as a broadcast. “Here’s what we have to say.”

Second, we have the opportunity to comment. And commenters take this as an opportunity to broadcast their points of view. They want the world to know their point of view and how clever they are.

And there lies the problem. It’s not anonymity so much. Critics argue people are more likely to be civil if they have their real names attached to comment.

Not so much.

I’ve seen people who use their real identities be real jerks on Twitter and Facebook. They make uncivil comments when they’re using those media to broadcast their thoughts. They aren’t having conversations when doing it.

That’s the difference maker. When two people with different points of view engage each other, they keep it civil.

And newspaper publishing should not be confused with such engagement.

So to fix the problem that newspapers have with comments, they need to engage readers. Use the stories to create conversations and participate in them. This means reporters have to be journalists and conversationalists.

I know not a lot of reporters will like that. It means more change. And more work. But the ire you are seeing in reader comments largely comes from readers who are upset that their points of view aren’t given enough credit. So they comment to make sure other readers are exposed to it since the newspaper chooses to ignore it.

If the commenters know that they are in a conversation with the reporter, they will be more likely to keep it civil.

I know this it won’t be easy. And few newspapers will be willing to make it happen. But what else are they going to do?

Really. I’m asking you (remember this is a conversation). What should newspapers do?

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  • I like your approach; I think it would work well in a small town like mine. I have friends that write for the local paper, and the rudest commentors usually slam the journalist, the subject, or the paper itself in the 3rd person abstract. There’s little true dialogue because anyone looking to engage in discussion gives up after seeing the futility of trying to engage people who like to insult and degrade for sport. Why join the fray when it’s not a debate, but a barfight?

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