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Don Rogers: What to do about comment section?

Online comments have long been the bane of a lot more newsrooms than ours.

The wonderful uplifting promise of a utopian give and take collapses everywhere into this collection of the smartest people in the room (just ask them) intent on one-upping one another at best. At worst, this is the province of bullies and trolls, their identities often well disguised, everything a putdown.

Mostly, the commenters are time sucks with the worst offenders crying foul like NBA superstars, nursing wounds they’re oblivious to inflicting on others, demanding mediators do something about their tormentors even as they unloose their own poison arrows.

The ardent partisans are the worst of the worst, left as well as right. It’s not the ideology but the fanaticism. Do they never tire?

A speaker in a Zoom call among editors recently suggested that with comments we in essence have put an empty cardboard box near the doors at a supermarket expecting contributions of foodstuffs and being surprised it’s filled with trash.

This is no welcoming, egalitarian forum in which to share ideas, only to inflame. Commenting has the look of a disease. Or if not a disease, a cup of wrath enabling the worst in us.

Such has been my attitude toward comments and commenters. Something bordering disgust, this deep disappointment, this appalling vantage on how poorly so many will treat others if given the opportunity.

But what to do about it? Online news sites have let ‘em fly, tried to moderate, required registration, plugged in Facebook, unplugged Facebook, cut comments out altogether.

Frankly, that’s where I was heading a few weeks ago. Just put this horrible feature out of our misery. There’s so little real value in it. Might as well pan for gold in Waikiki surf.

Besides, critics can email a letter to the editor, with their real names. They can call in their complaints. We can talk in person. We’re not hard to find. Maybe that’s sufficient.

A new view

But maybe I have it all wrong. Maybe the fault mainly is ours. A speaker in a Zoom call among editors recently suggested that with comments we in essence have put an empty cardboard box near the doors at a supermarket expecting contributions of foodstuffs and being surprised it’s filled with trash.

That is, the fault may lie in signage, at least in part. Are we clear enough about the civil exchanges we seek?

Look, he said, a comment section is like your living room. Would you allow these things to be said in your living room? You don’t have to put up with it in your comments sections. Don’t be shy about booting out the bullies, the insulters, the trolls, the off-topic crazies, anyone who can’t contribute to the discussion in a meaningful, civil way.

They don’t like it? That’s OK, really. There’s no shortage of places to go be nasty. Have a hoot.

Make it harder to get a comment in, he advocated. Make it so comments have to truly contribute to the discussion. No need to be shy about it. Trolls won’t like it. Hey, that’s OK, even the point. Clear out the trash, basically. Clean house.

We’ve only closed this door on one commenter who finally convinced us he would never get it. We’ve been too nice, the guest speaker suggested.

Could talk to ’em

He also suggested that authors engage with their commenters.

What? You mean, have a conversation by comment, like talk with these people?

Yes, exactly.

The magic we seek comes more to life when we engage with commenters this way. Page views increase, the tone of the discussion rises, understanding grows, he said. At least that’s what he found with the national string of television stations he serves as digital guru. He makes the people who write the pieces then continue the discussion with commenters.

There’s an art to it. He’s not talking about getting into spats, trading insults or anything like that. Try not to get baited. Keep your tone cool, calm, focus on the facts, conclusions, the ideas themselves, lifting people up rather than putting them down. They begin to respond in kind.

Serve the discussion rather than your own ego, basically. Don’t try to win the conversation. Leave the rest of those rhetorical devices in debating aside.

Answer questions, clarify points, nurture contribution to further understanding. You don’t have to agree, but remember the human on the other side of the comment is just that. It might even be fun.

This seemed like a good place to start. Seek first to understand. Isn’t that one of Stephen Covey’s “7 Habits”? Let’s try that, and so I have these past few weeks. Yes, it opened my eyes. I’ll tell you about that next week.

Don Rogers is the publisher of the Sierra Sun and The Union, based in Grass Valley. He can be reached at drogers@sierrasun.com or 530-477-4299


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