Are Online Comment Sections Still Valuable?

The Chicago Tribune last week suspended reader comments on its website. Company management has said little about what prompted the change, but a statement posted at the bottom of each article reads, in part: “We’ve turned off comments across while we review our commenting platform and consider ways to improve the system.”

The move comes four years after the Chicago Sun-Times did the same thing, saying at the time it was only a temporary ban until they figured out a way to stop the negativity – but reader comments have not returned.

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The Tribune and Sun-Times are among a growing number of media outlets that have done away with public comment sections which, as anyone who reads them knows, can sometimes become free-for-alls for anonymous posters full of insults, vulgarities and off-topic rants.

“As a reporter and a columnist at the paper, it is my hope that this is a permanent decision,” said the Chicago Tribune’s Mary Wisniewski. “The problem with unmediated comments is that’s it’s like a bar without a staff, without a bouncer. … The point of view from many people who are reporters is that they don’t even want to look at the comments, because there’s no reasoned discussion in there. It’s like a barroom brawl.”

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While chaos sometimes reigns in online comments, Stephanie Edgerly of Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism says there is value to a well-moderated comment section for both audiences and news outlets. Edgerly, who studies new media and audience engagement, cites the ability for readers to ask questions, point out errors, or share their expertise, potentially serving as a tip for the reporter. And she says organizations are trying new forms of audience engagement beyond a simple comment section at the end of a story.

“We’re seeing some interesting work done right now with annotations, where instead of the comments falling at the end of an article … you’re actually seeing annotations within a piece, where people are commenting or providing feedback as you encounter certain pieces of a story,” Edgerly said. “It’s sort of like when you’re reading a book on your Kindle, and you see that a passage has been highlighted.”

Edgerly also points to outlets creating communities for readers to discuss news stories on platforms like Facebook and Twitter. For her part, the Tribune’s Wisniewski says the discussions she’s part of on social media are generally far more valuable.

“Obviously, there are some trolls and some non-thoughtful people too, but you’re seeing more thoughtful conversations about stories,” Wisniewski said. “You can often get stories from them. You might contact a Twitter user saying, ‘Hey, I saw what you said, can I quote you?’ And then start a dialogue that way.”

It’s not just a lack of meaningful dialogue in traditional comment sections that worries Wisniewski – it’s also racism, misogyny and threats of violence. Edgerly says the research backs up that observation.

“There’s some evidence that the types of employees that get the most uncivil comments directed towards them tend to be women and tend to be minorities,” Edgerly said. “So it’s not just an issue of readers and reader engagement, there’s also a human element of protecting journalists on your staff and their well-being and safety.”

Wisniewski and Edgerly join us in discussion.

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