Reading, and re-evaluating, the comments

The phrase “never read the comments” has cemented its place in the internet lexicon. The online comment section, readers say, often devolves into an echo chamber of partisan attacks, insults and unsubstantial bickering.

Over the past few years, several professional news outlets have revamped or removed entirely their comment sections in favor of an attempt at a more civilized discourse. The shift has left college student media reconsidering how to approach online comments — should they be anonymous? Attached to a reader’s Facebook profile or university email? Should there be a comment section at all?

“Ideally, college newspapers become a place where people can discuss [certain] issues, and in a digital realm, there can be a vibrant conversation — even more so than in print, where we have letters to the editor. I really value the opportunity commenting gives us to create that space for discussion,” said Rachele Kanigel, adviser to San Francisco State University’s student newspaper, Golden Gate XPress, and past president of the College Media Association. “It’s just too bad that sometimes these discussions get hijacked by people who aren’t part of the community and don’t have anything productive to say.”

Kanigel said at the Golden Gate XPress, there recently have been two opinion columns that went viral online and attracted hundreds of comments.

“On one hand, it was sort of exciting to feel like all these people are reading their work and reading the newspaper, but on the other hand, if you look at the comments sometimes, they’re really hurtful,” she said.

A November column titled “Man Caves Perpetuate the Patriarchy” garnered 386 comments. The post went viral after conservative outlet National Review mocked the column in a blog post. Many of the comments on the column, Kanigel said, became personal attacks on the writer.

“Note to boyfriend: Drop this girl before your life is ruined,” one comment said. Other commenters responded that they had looked up the author on Google Images, which prompted a discussion about her attractiveness.

“Can you imagine if she sees this post? Here’s [sic] she is, whining about men and their wanting a little space, and all we do is rate her between 1 and 10,” a comment said. “LOL!! It doesn’t get any better than this.”

Kanigel said the newspaper staff did discuss moderating the comments, but they eventually decided against it. Another column published in December and titled “Scientology Tarnishes [Tom] Cruise’s Star Power,” resulted in 973 comments.

The comments on that column were more thoughtful and became a real discussion, Kanigel said — although while they didn’t delve into personal attacks on the columnist, some of the commenters eventually began attacking each other.

College media faces unique challenges when it comes to comment sections because student newspapers are often the voice of campus — a place for discussion among those in the community, Kanigel said.

“Having a space for comments can really create a community forum and a place for people to discuss these issues, which I think is great,” she said. “For that reason, I’d hate to see comments go by the wayside.”

Still, there are some steps college media staffers could consider to make the comment sections more refined. Moderating the comments would ensure that personal attacks don’t stay online — but as Kanigel pointed out, that takes a lot of time and effort for student editors and can also be a judgment call. Also, when articles and columns go viral and beyond the campus community, it becomes “hard to respond to that,” she said.

Not allowing commenters to remain anonymous might force them to be accountable to what they post, but several college newspaper editors have been reluctant to force that issue. In 2012, Princeton University’s then-president Shirley Tilghman wrote a letter to the editor asking for the Princetonian to remove anonymous comments.

“Anonymity invites candor, to be sure, but it also invites thoughtlessness, not to mention malice and spite,” she wrote. “In an academic community like ours, anonymous comments strike me as entirely out of place. They are antithetical to our Honor Code, whose guiding principle is that ideas are the coin of the realm. The Honor Code demands that students ‘own their words’ in their academic work.”

The Princetonian editors examined their commenting policies, but ultimately decided to keep anonymity. The editors argued that because the Princetonian’s website allows anonymity, its “comment boards have earned the reputation as the most active compared with those of other Ivy League newspapers.” Also, they said, readers feel more comfortable expressing controversial or unpopular views if they are anonymous and not concerned with their Google footprint.

“While we acknowledge that some users hide behind anonymity to make mean-spirited or offensive comments, the benefits of anonymity far outweigh the perceived cost,” then-editor-in-chief Henry Rome wrote in a column. “On a small college campus, requiring names or log-ins that can be traced back to university accounts will stymie public dialogue.”

Maintaining civility

While several professional news outlets have shut off commenting altogether — among them, Reuters, Mic, Recode and The Chicago Sun Times — others have experimented with different ways to change the commenting experience for readers, but not entirely eliminate it.

A service called Genius, for instance, allows readers to annotate certain sections or phrases of an article and start a topical discussion. And in January, the Chronicle of Higher Education announced that it would start reviewing comments before posting them. A group of moderators will read submissions for select articles throughout the day and publish the “most valuable” ones received — “the ones that provide interesting insights, thoughtful questions, strong points, and cogent criticisms,” editors wrote.

Others have directed readers to other methods of engagement. In October, Vice’s subsite Motherboard published an announcement titled “We’re Replacing Comments with Something Better.” Editor-in-chief Derek Mead bemoaned the lack of valuable discourse: “What’s the point of writing out a detailed thought when it’s sandwiched by cursory garbage?”

Instead, he wrote, the site will accept letters to the editors and publish a digest of the most insightful letters received. Readers are also encouraged to interact with reporters on social media.

Last July, The Verge, a Vox Media company, announced a “chill summer” where comments would be disabled for just a few weeks.

“What we’ve found lately is that the tone of our comments (and some of our commenters) is getting a little too aggressive and negative,” editor-in-chief Nilay Patel wrote in the announcement. “It’s hard for us to do our best work in that environment, and it’s even harder for our staff to hang out with our audience and build the relationships that led to us having a great community in the first place.”

Some college newspapers have found the culture of online harassment trickling down into their comment sections. In a Student Press Law Center survey distributed to college newspapers, out of 10 responses, four student editors said they know of someone who has been harassed through, or based on, comments on their website.

But all of those editors said their paper still has a comment section because they can see the benefits of having one.

“They allow engagement from readers — because of the comments section, we offer a voice to our readers,” one editor wrote. Another wrote that comments give students an opportunity to voice their opinions on campus issues.

Last March, staffers from the Michigan Daily filmed a video of them reading and reacting to mean reader comments, tweets and emails — comments like, “seriously man, fuck this dude. He has no idea how to write.”

The video’s creator Victoria Noble, who is a videographer and columnist for the Daily, said in an interview with the late college media blogger Dan Reimold that she wanted to promote serious audience interaction by showing how writers respond to readers’ reactions.

“This was meant to add humor to a situation that tends to get people really upset and strains the relationship between writers and readers,” she said.

In 2015, the Columbia Spectator, the student newspaper of Columbia University, announced it would close comments sections on all opinion pieces on sexual assault, going back to May 2014.

In a notice on the new policy, the paper’s editors wrote that generally, they value readers’ comments. Comments can further the conversation by adding insights and new perspectives to stories and are a way for readers to give feedback to the Spectator, they wrote.

“However, the comments on our opinion pieces related to sexual assault have not been used for these purposes,” they wrote. “Instead, anonymous commenters and internet trolls have used this space to spread hate, vitriol, and ad hominem attacks on writers and members of our community rather than offering commentary on the content of the piece or on the complex issue of how to address sexual assault on our campus.”

New forms of engagement

Hoping to insert a sense of civility into online comments, several media organizations are working to address online engagement and comments that could provide benefits to student publications.

The New York Times, Washington Post and the Mozilla Foundation partnered in June 2014 to create the Coral Project, funded by a two-year grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

The group is studying the wants and needs of commenters and media organizations. Greg Barber, head of strategy and partnerships at the Coral Project and director of digital news projects at the Washington Post, said the project has two main goals.

“One is to create open-source software that will help publishers better connect with their users,” Barber said. “Then on top of that, we want to provide analytics for publishers and for users.”

A main component of the software is the ability for publishers to rank users by levels of trust, Barber said. Essentially, trusted users — for example, users with a history of commenting regularly — could publish comments prior to moderator approval.

These tools will be available for publications of all sizes to use and adapt to their specific needs. Theoretically for college media, a user tied to a university email could be approved to comment without moderation.

“I think that there’s no substitute for human decision making when it comes to [maintaining comments],” Barber said. “I think that each news organization is going to need to decide for themselves how much resources they can devote to maintaining relationships with users, to ensuring loyalty, to all of those sorts of things.”

For student publications, Barber said an immediate way to improve the quality of comments is for the reporters to participate in the comments section. The University of Texas at Austin’s Engaging News Project found that comment sections with journalist involvement can improve discourse by as much as 15 percent.

“You will get better contributions, you get a better payoff for your engaged readership and you build a relationship with readers that can last far longer for your organization,” Barber said. “As a college student, that could be the kind of thing that helps you gather an audience for your professional career. Engaged readers are great for a news organization, but they’re also great for reporters and editors. If you make a fan in a comments section or in another engaged space … it could be someone who follows you throughout your career.” 

SPLC staff writer Madeline Will contributed to this report.

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