Publisher’s Perspective: The comment conundrum
You want to comment on an article. However, you’re not quite sure how the comment will be taken by its readers or whether or not you’ll get responses that are much less desirable than what you had hoped.
So, you decide to move on, regardless of the fact that what you had to say could add value to the story and discussion.
Many people feel like this – it’s just not worth the hassle.
We at the Tribune struggle with it, too. For years, like many other news outlets, we chose to have comments posted through Facebook as it was becoming increasingly difficult to allocate resources to moderate the back and forth between individuals.
And because Facebook’s terms of service apply, there was a mechanism for individuals to report inappropriate or abusive comments. However, not everyone was keen on having a Facebook account, and over the years they expressed those concerns about not being able to leave comments.
A little over a year ago, we, collectively as a company, decided to take make the move and take the article comments back in house. Needless to say, our timing couldn’t have been worse to try and monitor and learn the new platform as the pandemic had just taken hold and our attention was definitely skewed in another direction.
Unlike Facebook, this new platform didn’t need a Facebook only account, and offered more anonymity to help protect certain groups, such as women or minorities, from getting harassed. However, this seemed to get abused more and more as we marched forward.
The platform is not monitored by a human 24/7. We have less than a handful of employees who have access to the back end and it is a time consuming endeavor to try and sift through what people are saying and try to be responsive in a timely fashion.
The majority of the moderation comes in the form of automation. That is, the system will flag inappropriate words or terms and try to identify items that are not following the rules of what commenting is intended to do: stay on topic while promoting insightful discussion and civil discourse.
Yeah, that didn’t really happen. As we moved deeper into 2020, we worked with our provider to try and fine-tune the automation process but people found ways around the rules and bots started hitting the comments with inappropriate messages. None of which were good for anyone.
As we continued to try and refine the process into this year, after a few months, it was evident that we needed to try something different.
While we still struggle internally with resources to devote to this, our platform provider has extended some tools that should, hopefully, make it easier.
We are still invested in the core promise of what the comments can do, but this is probably the final stab at trying to make it right. If it doesn’t prove to be successful, we’ll simply turn it off to where nobody will be able to comment. Unfortunately, it’s where we are.
When we have people who can be valuable sources for articles tell us they do not want to be quoted for fear of getting vilified by the comments, that’s a problem. Yet, it’s the reality of what we’re up against.
No matter who you are, you most likely don’t like people to put you down or belittle you for (in many cases) a simple statement. Social media over the years has set the tone that this is completely acceptable for society to act this way, and it’s not.
Some of the best ideas can come from discussions from opposite sides of the fence. They can also uncover potential story topics that need to be dug deeper on – but not if the majority of the commenters feel like demeaning people and badgering folks for their political views. Ultimately this has what its come to and it’s just not productive.
I don’t want to put everyone in this bucket. A story that published the morning I’m writing this column had some really great and positive comments about the people being discussed in the article.
This is not to say that we all need to hold hands. Many times there is accountability that needs to happen. But there is a right way and a wrong way to say it. As we move forward, our goal will be to find as many of the wrong ways and remove them.
Granted, we are still learning how we can better at this and I’m certain many things will toe the line as acceptable or not. The fact of the matter is that we are at a crossroads and this effort is the last chance to try and make this something that can be valuable and make our readers feel appreciated.
If you’re struggling with whether or not to comment, you may want to follow the old piece of advice that if you don’t have anything nice to say, then don’t say anything at all. I’m sure you don’t want to be the one that ruins it for everyone else.
Publisher Rob Galloway can be reached at email@example.com or 530-542-8046.
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