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Let's talk about online comments (and try to keep it civil)

  • Author: David Hulen
  • Updated: July 1, 2016
  • Published January 1, 2016

This past week, a reader on adn.com posted this in the comments section under one of the articles:

"ADN, please omit the comments function on this story. It's becoming a sewer of ugly remarks, insults, and squabbling."

She was right. The comments were out of hand.

Is what she was describing the exception? Or is it a pretty good summary of how too many comment threads end up?

News sites have struggled with online comments as long as there have been comments. That's certainly been true with us. Rude, hateful, racist, sexist, mean, ignorant -- we've seen it all. It's certainly not always the case. We also see comments that are respectful, thoughtful, informative, funny and that offer solutions. Sometimes people directly involved in a story take the conversation in a new and useful direction. Sometimes the comments end up informing our journalism or making us think about an issue in a new way. But too often, commenters have fallen into predictable battle lines, hurling pointless insults and alienating readers who happen to drop in on the sniping.

'I went straight to the comments'

As we head into the new year, we're working on changes here at Alaska Dispatch News. We're in the process of a deep makeover of our website and apps, with an array of new online publishing tools that should make what we produce more useful. Look for changes to the print newspaper as well. We'll be continuing to hone, and hopefully improve, the quality and reach of the journalism we produce. I expect to be talking much more about all of this in coming weeks and, as always, want to hear from readers.

We're also taking a closer look at all the ways we interact with readers and the communities we serve. Story comments are a part of that. I hear about comments from people all the time. "I never read the comments." "I went straight to the comments." "Can't you do something about the comments?"

There has to be a better way. But a lot of people have spent a lot of time trying to figure it out and here we are. Are comments a lost cause? A growing list of news sites have decided enough is enough and shut their comment sections down.

I think they're worth trying to fix, but it's going to take work and, probably, some serious rethinking of what that space is. Maybe it's time, some are suggesting, to ditch the word "comments" completely and replace it with something more akin to "contributions," not just as a label but as an idea. We need to find ways, in the comments and elsewhere, for meaningful interaction between the journalists in here and the community outside the door.

There's talk in some newsrooms, including ours, about trying to transform the comment space into something with higher, more consistent value. We're watching that conversation closely and having our own.

How our comments work

Here's how real-time reader contributions work at adn.com now. We use a Facebook-based commenting system. If you have a Facebook account, you can comment on our site. Comments are not screened by administrators before they're published. Few news sites do that. There isn't a big enough staff to read and approve each comment. Facebook automatically blocks most comments containing profanity. But filters aren't perfect. A lot of spam gets through and winds up posted on our site. (And yes, the spam makes us just as crazy as it does you.)

Readers can flag comments they find offensive or abusive, but that report goes to Facebook. Most days, ADN editors scroll through many comments after they're public and occasionally hide those flagged by readers or that clearly violate our terms of service. Common offenses: repeated incivility, personal attacks and repeated off-topic posts and spamming. But we cannot delete Facebook comments that appear on our site, just hide them from public view. On occasion we've blocked repeat offenders, and if a commenter is blocked, their comments are automatically hidden from public view but remain visible to themselves and their friends.

Like many newsrooms, we haven't devoted a lot of time to monitoring or moderating comments in the past. We have started doing more lately.

One thing I've learned over the years is that actually engaging with readers in the comment space -- answering questions, explaining coverage, listening -- can improve the space, and the quality of our own content. The feedback regularly helps in our reporting. Want to see an explosion of reader engagement? Ask "Did you feel the earthquake?" in a story or on Facebook or Twitter after we have a shake. When a reader suggests a story contains an error or is missing an important element, reporters and editors take note and reach out. That's a plus with the Facebook-based comment system -- it's easy to reach out to a commenter through their profile.

Moving forward

When news sites first began shifting to Facebook-based comments, part of the appeal was that it would make the conversations more civil. Facebook makes it tough to create bogus accounts, the reasoning went, so readers would be posting under real names. And that would lead to more civility than we saw with anonymous comments. Plus people have control over what they share and whose comments they see. It hasn't exactly worked out that way. I'm constantly surprised at what people post under their own names for a big audience, and we've seen a fair number of fake accounts as well.

Are the comments a "viper-filled pit of hell," as one recent article on the topic put it? The nasty vibe in some comment threads no doubt keep out people with something to contribute. As elsewhere, our comments are often dominated by male voices. That said, many of our commenters, regulars and less frequent contributors as well, consistently follow the rules. Some clearly feel an ownership of the space and aren't bashful about letting us or each other know when things are getting out of hand. We're grateful for that.

We're looking at changes, including potentially adopting some new commenting tools aimed at improving the quality of the conversation. But there are some basic questions as we move forward. We want to hear from readers.

How heavily should we moderate comments? How important is it that real names be attached to them? Are there features that would improve the experience for readers and contributors? For example, would it be useful for the community to be able to place a value on comments, or individual commenters, with Reddit-style up-votes? Would it be useful for readers to be able to easily just hide the comments if they don't want to see them? Should the comments be on a different page from the stories? Should we charge money for commenters to post? (Don't laugh -- it's been suggested.) Should we throw in the towel?

As we try to sort this out, look for a little heavier presence from us in the commenting space. And expect that we'll disable commenting on some articles where the likelihood of meaningful discussion is low, say certain crime stories. Moving forward, if you do jump in to comment, please keep it civil and on point. And please flag material you think is inappropriate.

We want to hear from you. Email me. Talk to me on Twitter. Or let us know in the comments.

David Hulen is editor of Alaska Dispatch News. Email him at dhulen@alaskadispatch.com.

Alaska Dispatch News welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary@alaskadispatch.com. Send submissions shorter than 200 words to letters@alaskadispatch.com or click here to submit via any web browser.

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