A Reporter’s View On The News Industry’s Broken Commenting System

News comments are broken. It was a popular topic of last night’s Hacks/Hackers Seattle meetup and the driving notion behind one of the Knight-Mozilla News Challenge, which asks, “How can we reinvent online news discussions?“. Alex Schmidt, a freelance reporter and producer working for NPR, Spot.Us and other outlets, has dealt with broken commenting first-hand, in a way that has negatively impacted her chances at future reporting for certain communities. This guest piece from her outlines some of those experiences and how they’ve affected the work she does.

How comments (and the anticipation of them) affect reporting

A guest post by Alex Schmidt (@alexschmidt)

I’m a comment reader. I assumed all journalists were, but I recently found out (to my shock) that that isn’t necessarily the case. Needless to say, since this post is about how comments affect reporting, it’s confined to journalists who read comments – those on their own stories and comments in general.

Each time a story of mine is published online (I report mainly for NPR), I check the comments with a bit of trepidation. Comments, after all, become the permanent record of a story, so if an astute reader points out some hole in your reporting, that reflects poorly on you – forever and ever, or until the Internet goes away. Generally though, since I subscribe to the “what I’m doing is supposed to serve the public interest” school of thought about journalism, I feel that any holes pointed out serve to boost the overall quality of the piece, even if they make me, as the reporter, look a little worse for the wear.

On NPR’s site, most of the comments criticizing my stories are of this sort – constructive. In the case of constructive comments, the Internet has undoubtedly made me a stronger reporter, forcing me to double check my facts, follow instincts better, consider representing other points of view that hadn’t occurred to me, and even led to follow-up stories. *

Comments for the bad?

Recently, though, I encountered another strain or culture of commenting when I published my first story for The Los Angeles Times – the vitriolic, angry, frequently irrelevant and unconstructive kind. In this case, the comments may have a very different effect.

The story I did for the LAT was about people who start businesses on their front lawns (which typically happens in immigrant neighborhoods), selling everything from clothing to tires to wooden planters. I didn’t mention whether the people featured in the piece were legal or illegal immigrants because the front lawn sales happen among both groups and because it didn’t seem relevant to a story about business and zoning. Nonetheless, the overwhelming majority of comments belligerently addressed anger at illegal immigration.

Overwhelming voices and missed opportunities

Since I’m fluent in Spanish, I can — and enjoy being able to — report on goings on in Spanish speaking immigrant communities. But the

comments on the story will make me think twice about how and whether I will publish such stories. Angry writers seemed to overwhelm any point I was trying to make – about entrepreneurship by necessity, about the brick and mortar stores that might suffer by being undercut by front lawn sales, and about potentially outdated zoning laws. Those comments are now, after all, the permanent record of the story.

But beyond that, it may be more difficult for me to do such reporting in the future, even if I wanted to.

The Ventura County Star has dealt with similar commenting issues in the past. I chatted with crime reporter Adam Foxman, whose stories often bore the brunt of the community’s ire, about how comments affected his reporting. Here’s what he said: “One of the primary ways it affected us is that I had many sources who felt hurt by the things people were saying. Sources felt reluctant to talk to us. We lost opportunities to interview people, people were more hesitant with us.”

I don’t have high hopes for my access to the people I covered in my story about front lawns, and I wouldn’t blame them, or any other immigrants who wouldn’t want to talk to me after having seen those comments.

Not only do vitriolic comments negatively affect reporting, but because they overwhelm message boards, reporters lose opportunities for critical, constructive comments that actually could boost the quality of the reporting.

A question of policies

Much has been written about community engagement and commenting policies. The inevitable and not incorrect claims by readers of censorship, and the notion that comments exist at the discretion of news outlets, represents a tough push and pull that is not easily resolved. But the recent experience of the VC Star in confronting the commenting issue makes the case, at the very least, for experimenting with different policies, and not only because doing so could boost the quality of the journalistic product. Editor Joe Howry says that traffic has risen every day since having implemented the new system. The Los Angeles Times is also experimenting with different policies on some of its online properties.

This is an anecdotal story, obviously, based largely on my experience and that of a couple others. But I’m sure there’s a bigger story to tell about how comments affect reporting. I’d love to hear from others about their experiences, or perhaps see a detailed study by one of our fine journalistic nonprofits out there.

* Illustrations of constructive comments: Here’s a story of mine where someone pointed out a hole in my reporting that led to a permanent correction that sits forever atop the piece (the correction doesn’t mention that the real hurdle for historic buildings is becoming eligible for the register, rather than being listed – but I was wrong, so moving on!) And here’s a story I did for Marketplace. Two things were mentioned in the comments that I thought about including in the story, but didn’t for no good reason: how the App works, and the history of QR Codes in Japan. Lessons learned: triple check facts, follow instincts about questions in stories.