Comments or no comments?

I’ve been quite busy of late and haven’t found the time to blog – which means that what I intended to say in the post has shifted slightly.

One of the things I’ve been focusing on at the Echo is ways on interacting with our online audience more effectively. I’ll be blogging about it later but basically I’ve been working Twitter, getting involved in our forums, starting an ents blog – and responding to story comments.

It’s the last bit that’s causing me the most grief. Newquest has a register-to-comment policy but doesn’t require any more than an email address and nickname.

So, like almost every other newspaper out there, we struggle with our comments thread being hijacked by anonymous posters who like to abuse the stories, the people we’re writing about, their fellow commenters and the paper itself.

It’s not made easier by a lack of house rules and the fact that if we remove a comment, there’s no ‘removed by moderator’ or ‘reported for breaching house rules’ message. It just disappears. Which often causes its own problems.

As an experiment I tried contacting the offenders to explain why their comments were being removed (the Echo hadn’t been doing this although we do have a standard ‘yellow card’ message we send to people who really step over the line.)

This does have an effect, although it’s time consuming – and there are a certain number of offenders who simply register a new gmail address and have another go.

We’ve got one visitor, from Australia, who’s only comments are about how poor our stories are. There’s another who consistently claims we’re ‘out to get’ whoever the subject of a story is or that we should ‘stop telling him what to think’.

This week’s superstory – the Lapland New Forest extravangza – has had more than 200 comments in its various guises. About 50 are off topic, or are about how no-one in their right mind would have gone there in the first place.

On the one hand, we want to see lots of comments. After all, that’s the sort of audience interaction we’re aiming for, isn’t it?

And I firmly believe that conversation can’t be one-sided: we have to be part of it; the reporters reading and responding to comments on their stories, correcting mistakes when they’re pointed out, or adding polls to a story when what the readers are saying warrants it.

However. The high volume of offensive and abusive comments makes it hard for me to argue this point against reporters who say that by responding to them we give them credence in a way we’d never do with the ‘nutters’ who ring the newsdesk.

There are some days when I look at the comments and my heart sinks. I’d like to ban them all.

So what’s to do? Tougher house rules? Bans for persistent offenders? More moderation? Or just more interaction and hope that if we treat the audience with respect, they’ll treat us with respect?

I’d love to know what you think.

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5 thoughts on “Comments or no comments?

  1. Its a sad side-effect of the internet that comments can and often do degenerate into abuse, usually those who will take the time to comment are those who are motivated to do so.

    Result? A skewed set of comments that give the impression everyone is “out to get you” – first of all take heart that this happens, and from my experience is amplified with a public body (Correct me if I’m wrong but council related stories will always be the hottest potato!) or “mainstream media” outlets.

    Adding community control to comments makes a huge difference to sites, allowing people to dig up n down “good” comments and to hide (like youtube does) those which others flag, before they are removed.

    Psychologically, if the persistent offenders are always getting comments hidden or buried – they quickly get bored or make better comments… it deprives them of attention and (as your associates have rightly said) credence.

  2. Dilyan says:

    Something I learnt from Jo Geary: trolls give you an opportunity to show the world that you are not the same idiot as them. By replying to them politely you show everybody how reasonable you are and what complete arseholes they are. So in a way, you can actually benefit from their comments.

    That said, there will be times when you will have to delete a comment. The option you suggest, having a standard explanation why the comment was removed, sounds like the way to go.

  3. […] is plenty of ongoing discussion about how to moderate comments on blogs and the legal issues around who is liable etc.  IntenseDebate doesn’t solve/answer all of […]

  4. […] quick thought about story comments Anyone who follows me on Twitter (or who’s read this post) will know that story comments and the negative atmosphere they can create has exercised me […]

  5. Amir says:

    I agree with Luke – the lowest cost, and normally most effective method of dealing with this kind of problem is peer-based community reviewing of comments.

    But maybe you need to set some house rules and curb the enthusiasm of some of the persistent offenders first. In my experience the Bournemouth Echo article comments often end up degenerating into personal, petty arguments between a few loud individuals. This in itself dissuades me from contributing – as I just don’t want to get involved!

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