From the editor: Comments on comments

2014-05-04T00:00:00Z 2014-05-05T10:32:04Z From the editor: Comments on commentsBy DARRELL EHRLICK Gazette editor The Billings Gazette
May 04, 2014 12:00 am  • 

In my world, there is social media. Then there's anti-social media.

Every person who believes that "old media," including print, is dead, has to overcome some pretty annoying facts to make that hypothesis work.

If we're dying, we're perishing with our biggest audience ever. Here's what I mean: We've never had more readers, and it's never been easier for readers to connect with us and take us wherever they go.

Have a phone? Then you probably have The Billings Gazette — and many other media outlets — available.

Thirty years ago, if you wanted to read The Gazette, you had to have the actual printed copy in front of you. If you didn't live close by, you had to wait for mail or never read the news at all.

Now, if you have an app or a web browser, you've got us. And we happily have you.

But for all the benefits of super-connected readers, there are some definite drawbacks.

One is online comments, what folks have to say about the stories we produce. Few things can burn through more staff time and energy.

Most comments are fine. Many tend toward the vitriolic and juvenile. Many are predictable. But for hundreds of stories there are comments, feedback and interaction.

On a few, there are amazing debates where a bunch of folks who might not otherwise talk with each other actually discuss a heady topic.

A recent discussion about "Not In Our Town" and the City Council was a good example of comments at their best, a thoughtful give-and-take about a local issue.

But so many editors, myself included, have wearied with the evolution of online comments; so much so that some newspapers are abandoning them altogether. The Chicago Sun-Times recently announced it was sacking its online comments as it developed a different commenting tool.

Here at The Gazette, we moved to a Facebook model, which allows folks to comment, provided the commenter has a Facebook account. While not a perfect solution, it seemed to cut down on some of the trollish behaviors we saw before making the switch. It seems like since Facebook is a bit less anonymous, commenters are better behaved.

That hasn't stopped some of the behaviors, though. Not even Facebook can stop folks from typing screeds in ALL CAPS. And, Facebook hasn't stopped commenters from posting statements that are clearly defamatory or simply unsubstantiated rumors.

The question often is: So why do we do it?

Part of the answer is that while the printed edition of any newspaper and its website will be similar, they are each distinct products with different capabilities and expectations. Commenting and interaction between readers and the media is part of the expectation. Folks want and even insist that a forum be provided for conversation.

Though the courts continue to hold that newspapers aren't necessarily liable for what commenters write — much like a property owner isn't responsible for graffiti on a fence — that's little comfort for folks in my business who pore over words very carefully. And, try telling someone who has just been shredded by some online troll that the comments which appear on our site are really Facebook's. That's a distinction that some folks don't always make or care about.

Several weeks ago, we had a story that no one thought would draw as much online feedback as it did. Within five hours of posting, most of the posts had made allegations that were not proven or statements that were simply unjustifiable.

With every comment, it seemed the ante had been upped.

What did these comments really mean in the long run?

Nothing.

Would they affect the outcome of the story?

No.

Still, it didn't stop some observant readers from noticing the comments had — poof — disappeared. It wasn't the first time we've pulled comments or shut commenting down. Thankfully, it doesn't happen often. On those rare occasions, we have to stop a conversation that seems to be more like a shouting match than discourse. It's hard to say that there's some overriding principle that should allow us to host what amounts to a petty, juvenile name-calling match.

The truth be told: Most every editor I know wrestles with this and has for years. It's hard not to find an editor who doesn't get downright sappy when it comes to the idea of public discourse and freedom of speech.

Then again, those same editors get annoyed when part of their day is spent trying to justify why some semi-anonymous knucklehead should be able to commit character assassination on our website.

Editors love fighting for our journalists, but we'd rather not spend the energy justifying what is essentially bad online behavior. And, in the end, sometimes being an editor means that we have to edit more than just what our staff writes.

Copyright 2014 The Billings Gazette. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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