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Some Comments About Comments and Their Implications

I’ll admit I’ve never given Web comments serious thought. As a news consumer, I tend to gloss over them by accident, mostly, while trying to find the end of whatever story I’m reading. And as a writer, my inclination is to internalize the positive ones, ignore the mean-spirited ones and openly assess the validity of the constructive criticisms, discerning how the person’s view might improve my reporting and/or writing skills.

But I was struck by the impact of comments Thursday morning when I was directed toward a piece by a Waco Tribune-Herald reporter. For my non-Texan friends, Waco is the biggest city near (south of) West, where the horrific fertilizer plant explosion on April 17 left 15 dead, many of whom were volunteer firefighters.

The Tribune-Herald story describes the intimate details of the “blunt force trauma” incurred by each of the victims, including graphic, downright disturbing particulars of individual causes of death and other vivid information about the deceased.

The comments were ruthless, and perhaps rightfully so. West and the surrounding areas (including Waco) are relatively small and very close-knit, especially considering their recent circumstances. At last check, there were around 450 comments (a lot for a local daily) lambasting the paper — and the writer — for disclosing such gruesome information about people esteemed in their community, and beyond, as heroes. By my count, there was not a single comment in favor of the story, its contents or the journalist who produced it.

Late Thursday afternoon, the paper posted a “note to readers,” which seemed to acknowledge the viewpoint of angry, grieving readers, but one would be generous to label it an official apology.

It begged the question, at least to me, how does the accessibility of the Web and ability to instantly weigh in on news affect the news itself? Let’s say this scenario played out pre-Internet: the newspaper probably would have been inundated with angry phone calls and letters. They might have published an apology. Still, the proliferation of complaints simply wouldn’t be as high. It’s just too easy to leave a comment while surfing the Web, significantly easier than penning a letter with a beginning, middle and end, buying stamps, finding a post office, etc. Let’s be honest, Internet comments are often generated and submitted with less overall thought than writing a letter to the editor might be, just because the former is instantaneous. With the ability to leave comments on news stories via Facebook, like in the instance of the Waco Tribune-Herald, the news — and the scolding commentary — travels much faster, and the fiery comments keep on comin’.

I wonder also if a West resident would have been so outraged at the content of the story (which, to be fair, is all factual — just distastefully presented) if he didn’t peruse the comment section to see his neighbors berating the story’s writer, editor and their mothers.

I’m not the first person to ponder this idea.

In an article for the New York Times, two science professors from the University of Wisconsin, Madison call this phenomenon “the nasty effect.” According to the results of an experiment they conducted, they say that “uncivil” comments can markedly change a reader’s interpretation of a news story.

“Comments from some readers, our research shows, can significantly distort what other readers think was reported in the first place,” the scientists wrote.

Bob Cohn at the Atlantic considered the value of comments just last week:

“At their best, comment threads can put topics in a new light, stir discussions, create community, even uncover new talent,” he said.

It’s clear that the Central Texas community sought refuge from the Tribune-Herald‘s story with their Facebook friends.

“The main issue here is whether comments create such a negative environment that they detract from the reading experience, a proposition to which many would answer yes,” Cohn continued. One could argue that whatever value that story had to offer could be lost on a reader who isn’t emotionally attached to the issue, all because of the negative comments.

The Telegraph‘s Mic Wright goes so far as to call comments the “radioactive waste of the Internet.” He says they devalue the news experience.

“One national newspaper section editor proposed a thought experiment to me recently: what if newspapers printed comments along side the hard copy versions of their stories? His belief was that comments would be gone within weeks, the sheer insanity of them poisoning the well when placed in such a prominent position,” Wright wrote.

 And then there’s the Twitter handle @AvoidComments that has tweeted “If you have a choice between reading the comments and, well, doing anything else with your life… that seems like an easy choice” and “You’re feeling crappy right now, I can tell. It’s probably because you read a comments section.”
Here’s the question: are we, as readers and writers, better off with the ability to comment on everything we read? Does it make us smarter? Or just upset? Has journalism benefitted from instant reader commentary?
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