The Problems with Readers’ Comments Sections: The lack of civility

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In 2009, Virginia Heffernan in the New York Times Magazine raised an important question:Reader comments are key part of online journalism. So why do they disappoint?

To answer that, I checked out readers’ comments on many sites — NY Times, Wall St. Journal, Boston Globe, and others — and most of the time, the comments are often off point, ad hominem attacks on either the author or other readers…In general, there’s a school-yard mentality to the responses, which is helpful (apparently) for people who need to vent and rant but not for a general discourse.

Then, in 2010, Wall St. Journal’s L. Gordon Crovitz wrote, Is Internet Civility an Oxymoron?,” looking at the same issue.

Crovitz then cited several ways that sites are addressing the problem of the comments section.

  • Some sites let readers rank the reputation of comment writers.
  • Gawker list comments based on readers’ rankings.
  • Some don’t permit any postings at all.
  • The Wall St. Journal permits people to review posts by paid subscribers.
  • The Washington Post will soon rank “trusted commentators.”

Yesterday, I decided to post a comment to an opinion article in the Wall St. Journal.  I had figured the Journal’s comment section might be more circumspect, interesting and erudite because of the Journal’s monitoring system to review posts.

I was wrong.

I saw a lot of ad hominem attacks. A lot of emotion. And a lack of logical arguments. There was a call for reasoned debate, but most of the posts I read were focused on trying to score a point against the idiots on the other side (I saw this from both sides of the aisle).  There were quite a few people who modus operendi is to bully those they disagree with.

Seems to me the rating system deployed by the Journal does not work to promote civility. Neither does having people sign in with their real names.  And although you can report abuse regarding those comments that are attacks (rather than arguments) against other people’s comments, the Journal doesn’t seem to do any moderating to improve the conversations going on in its comments section.

The problem with political discourse in this country does not live only inside the Beltway. It’s a problem all over the place, especially on newspapers’ comments section.

I think closer moderation might be an answer, but I’d bet — Crovitz aside — that the free-market Journal is probably is not inclined to have a moderator. The Journal would not be alone in that decision.  Closer moderation would cost more while the payoff likely have no benefit to the Journal’s bottom line.

And that’s a shame. Because our country could use more civility in its political debates. And the Internet would be a good place to start.

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