Posted on February 18, 2008
6 tips for comments on stories and j-blogs
The question: Should we allow comments on our (news stories / columns / reporters’ blogs / multimedia packages / etc.)?
The answer: Yes.
But … ah, yes, there must be a “but” in this answer. Moderated? No, because no one has enough money to hire enough people to read every comment posted on a news Web site. Actually, the “but” has several facets, and they relate directly to the reasons why you should not need to moderate the comments.
- Put the rules where everyone will see them. Check out Michelle Ferrier’s clever illustrated explanation of why this works.
- Require registration. While I hate this practice on individual blogs (and I am not alone), it makes good sense for news organizations. In my opinion, it does not make sense to require registration just for reading stories on the site — but for the privilege of posting a comment, it makes a world of sense. (There is a good counter-argument that advocates allowing anonymous comments.)
- Make the registration process and form as short as possible. I favor the kind of form that asks for exactly three things: A username, a password, and my e-mail address. The e-mail address will save me if I forget my username and password 12 years from now (I registered at The New York Times Web site in 1995). Some folks feel strongly that you should require real names. But if you’re asking for more than six pieces of information, in my opinion, you’re asking for TOO MUCH. Especially if you are asking for annual income — are you crazy? I will just lie to you if you make me answer that. (I’ll lie about my year of birth too, and sometimes, even my exact Zip code. Again, I’m not the only person who looks at it this way. It’s none of your business.)
- Use an e-mail return sequence to block most of the jerks, trolls, and idiots. It’s not that people will never use a dummy e-mail address (one that they reserve for site registrations) — lots of people do that. But if your registration process prevents the registrant from posting the first comment until after s/he has replied to an auto-generated e-mail to the address s/he supplied, it prevents a lot of hotheads from ever firing off their offensive garbage into your comments area. (If your site suffers from “comment spam,” check out Akismet. It’s pretty near miraculous.)
- Supply an easy-to-see link that allows the readers to report an offensive comment.* You don’t have time to moderate the comments, but the readers can — and will — do it for you. Make sure you have a clear procedure for deleting the reported comments. That is, follow your own rules (see No. 1 above).
- Encourage journalists to read the comments and respond (selectively). If you read the comments about your own stories, you stand to learn something. If you respond defensively ( “What I meant was …”), you’re likely to start an ugly flame war. If instead you respond with some additional facts or with a thank-you, you’re likely to encourage even more intelligent reader feedback — and that can help you in your reporting in the future.
*On reporting offensive comments:
Most campaigns and individual bloggers invite readers to report offensive comments, and others approve each comment before it appears. At the liberal discussion Web site Daily Kos, “trusted users” can block people whose comments regularly offend members.
Daily Kos has another tactic: the recipe. When a troll attempts to start a conversation at that site, loyalists post recipes instead of engaging them. With so many trolls, the recipes have proliferated — enough so that Daily Kos compiled a 144-page “Trollhouse Cookbook” … (Source: The Wall Street Journal, Dec. 24, 2007)
If your news organization is not allowing comments, or allowing them only in certain specialized ghettos (such as the “citizen” blogs), or moderating them, or doing some stupid stuff that makes commenting a pain in the neck — why not start a discussion about these ideas in your newsroom? Today!
And if your CMS is so inadequate that it cannot handle comments properly, you need to start talking about how to scrap that piece of junk and get a decent CMS to replace it.
Update (Feb. 24): John Hassell wrote a good post about how journalists should respond to comments.
Update (March 2): Mark Potts described how Philly.com handles comments in his post yesterday.