User comments: good, bad and ugly

By Steve Outing

Like most newspaper websites these days, the Boulder Daily Camera‘s allows users to comment on stories. Staff monitors the comments and responds to user reports of abusive comments by removing offensive posts. It’s all good … well, some good, some not so.

When you read bad comments, remember
the good

The Camera is my main local news source, and I find myself drawn to read beyond the reporter’s story often when an active discussion thread builds. I’m sure that the Camera’s user comments are just like everywhere else — in other words, there’s a lot of awful stuff to wade through. Offensive comments, crude humor, outright stupidity, trolls looking to pick a fight, insensitivity to other people’s suffering, etc.

I don’t mean to paint too bleak a picture, since there’s often intelligent commentary in these comment threads, too. (But I think the stupid and outrageous comments tend to stick in your memory more.)

A comment thread in a story this weekend really stuck out as representing why allowing user comments on news stories is a good thing despite all the bad. A lengthy thread built up around the story of a cyclist getting killed on Saturday when he was hit by a dump truck at a busy and dangerous intersection on the north edge of town.

Most commenters on this particular story were respectful of the people involved in a local tragedy, but one comment stood out as representing why user comments are a positive thing overall. You never know what may turn up; in this case it was from a person with some involvement in the tragedy who the Camera’s reporter did not reach.

“First of all, I want to send out my deepest condolences to the family of the cyclist that was killed from this horroble accident. May he rest in peace!

“The driver of the dump truck is my brother. I know first hand, how much this accident has affected my brother. He is very emotional and cries so much for the loss of this man who died. It is a tragic, tragic accident. I ask that you please keep my brother in your prayers too. He is so devastated by this accident.

“Again, I send out my deepest condolences for this man’s family. I will keep him and his family in my prayers.”

Author: Steve Outing Steve Outing is a Boulder, Colorado-based media futurist, digital-news innovator, consultant, journalist, and educator. ... Need assistance with media-company future strategy? Get in touch with Steve!

7 Responses to "User comments: good, bad and ugly"

  1. Kurt Greenbaum
    Kurt Greenbaum 9 years ago .Reply

    Amen, brother. That’s the kind of stuff I live for in this medium. I hope that he wasn’t savaged by subsequent posts — although, sadly, that tends to happen in these cases as well. If he was, perhaps the Camera stuff had the good sense to delete those personal attacks.

  2. Steve Outing
    Steve Outing 9 years ago .Reply

    Kurt: I don’t think so. When Camera staff has deleted a comment, the commenter’s name sticks with wording something like “Comment removed by Camera staff.” (Which I think is smart; it’s a bit of a public rebuke to the jerk who posted something awful. Of course, most use aliases, but frequent commenters build up a reputation so it can be effective.)

  3. Christopher Ryan
    Christopher Ryan 9 years ago .Reply

    Yes, that’s a great public comment. Unfortunately, it’s an anomaly.

    Unmoderated forums are a serious disservice to the country. They are filled with personal attacks, misinformation and organized smear campaigns. The nation dearly needs intelligent, reasoned and factual discussion of the issues — not flame wars that discourage many people from participating in democracy. Compare the moderated NYTimes forums with the unmoderated nastiness of CNN’s comments and you’ll see what I mean.

    How about a system in which people put in their two cents — literally. Require that people who comment must create an account and enter a credit card number. Then charge two cents per post (billed in $5 increments or so), and use that to offset the price of a moderator who approves posts that are on-topic and non-personally-abusive. Better yet, add a fact-challenge function in which people can have the moderator check a specific fact in a post for $5-or-so fee. If the fact is proven incorrect, the moderator would add a note to that effect to the post and the fee would be refunded. If the challenger has more than three-or-so fact-challenges in which the fact in the post is upheld, then that person would not be allowed to make any more fact-challenges for a year.

    Just imagine the improved quality of discussion that would provide. That’s the role I’d like to see for enwspapers.

  4. Steve Outing
    Steve Outing 9 years ago .Reply

    Chris: I’ll give you points for truly out of the box thinking! :) But I think your idea of charging in our current Internet environment would fall flat.

    I think that a key to making an unmoderated comment system work is for staffers to maintain a regular presence. As “authority figures,” they can have an effect and keep down the abuses by being part of the comment flow and discussion. And of course they should monitor things as well as respond to user complaints.

    I’m no fan of letting comments get out of hand. But I also don’t think that draconian measures are necessary in most cases.

  5. Christopher Ryan
    Christopher Ryan 9 years ago .Reply

    The idea would certainly fall flat among the fringe people (of all political stripes). That’s the point.

    But I suspect it would bring in a much larger new group of people who want better from newspaper forums.

  6. Kurt Greenbaum
    Kurt Greenbaum 9 years ago .Reply

    You’re right on the money, Steve, with the notion of being present on unmoderated comments. Our site’s blog comments are “unmoderated” inasmuch as they go live immediately (bloggers get e-mail alerts, of course). We rarely have big problems with profanity, flaming and the like — because I believe readers see that we are there and react to the bad stuff. And, that we will oftentimes chime in and remind readers to get back on topic, etc.

    Perfect? No. But a lot better than I might have expected.

  7. Christopher Ryan
    Christopher Ryan 9 years ago .Reply

    I’d consider sites that have staffers present on the forums to be ‘moderated’ — and I salute the newspapers that are willing to pay for the staff time to do that. But given all of the cutbacks going on, how much longer can that last? The industry needs to look at ways to pay for moderators, and do it now — before losing the quality of the discussions and the audience that goes with it.

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