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Reader comments continue to plague the media industry

While Hearst newspapers like the Houston Chronicle and San Francisco Chronicle have been busy improving their user comment experience, Popular Science shut off its reader comments last month, effectively silencing the Internet “trolls” who disrupt and harass.

Why? “Comments can be bad for science,” wrote digital content editor Suzanne LaBarre. According to the magazine’s announcement last month, research has shown that uncivil comments can change a reader’s interpretation of a news story about scientific issues.

Popular Science’s decision is just another battle in the comment war, which has been waged ever since the implementation of comment sections gave readers a forum to post their thoughts. Plagued by rude, nasty and crude comments, news sites have employed a variety of systems to try and combat comment “trolls” while still allowing the reader to have a platform for discourse.

Ridding sites of anonymous commenters and implementing Facebook comment systems instead has been a popular way to fight uncivilized speech. In September, The Star-Telegram did just that when it started making users login using a Facebook account to comment, with executive editor Jim Witt noting commenting abuse as the reason why:

“Facebook requires account holders to use their names, and we believe that anyone who wants to contribute to our public forums should put their name on it. Although we’ve always required people who send us letters to the editor to identify themselves, online commenting has, for the most part, been anonymous.

And the difference in the discourse is striking. In signed letters for our print editions, writers make their points using reasoned and usually reasonable arguments. But online, comment threads too often devolve into a cesspool of name-calling. On some stories, we are forced to turn off the commenting feature because the language becomes too offensive.”

Last month also saw the Huffington Post ditch anonymous commenters because of aggressive postings. Tech Crunch recently cited a study that showed Facebook commenters are “twice as civil” as anonymous commenters. In comparing Washington Post’s Facebook site with its website, which allows anonymous users, professor Ian Rowe of London’s University of Kent found the paper’s website had far more uncivilized talk.

Interestingly enough, only a quarter of all Internet users have actually used anonymous comments, the Poynter Institute reported, citing a Pew study. Certainly the entire 25 percent of users choosing to remain unknown can’t all be spouting vitriolic language. What’s left seems to be an even smaller percentage of people that continue to dog the commenting culture. No doubt new organizations fighting to keep their sites civil will continue to ditch anonymous comment systems.

–Katrina M. Mendolera

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