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.

  1. Put the rules where everyone will see them. Check out Michelle Ferrier’s clever illustrated explanation of why this works.
  2. 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.)
  3. 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.)
  4. 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.)
  5. 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).
  6. 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.

10 Comments on “6 tips for comments on stories and j-blogs

  1. Comments have been a touchy subject at Scripps starting a few months ago when they really began to take off post-Ellington launches.

    Most of our sites apply all of the suggestions you mentioned, but continue to have problems from a few select users. These folks are the ones that post abusive comments continuously using many, many new registrations to get around being banned.

    To combat this, we created an option to automatically put any newly registered user into a user group. The site manager is alerted by the first five comments from those users, and all comments must be moderated before going live.

    If the user passes the test, they can be moved out of this group to a normal users group.

    This has helped greatly the sites that have implemented it. But it does require a little more attention since comments are effectively moderated for many users.

    Django was also smart to add a feature that allows banned users to think they aren’t banned — those users see their comments, but others don’t.

    We’re still looking into other solutions since there doesn’t exist a one-site fits all option.

    I do wish more sites, not just Scripps, would encourage journalists to read and respond to comments on their stories. I think this would help with better comments and further the original story.

  2. I agree wholeheartedly, Patrick, that when reporters are in there (responding), it usually makes the conversation more civil. Not always! But usually.

  3. Paul Graham has a new essay on trolls
    “There’s a sort of Gresham’s Law of trolls: trolls are willing to use a forum with a lot of thoughtful people in it, but thoughtful people aren’t willing to use a forum with a lot of trolls in it. Which means that once trolling takes hold, it tends to become the dominant culture. …”

  4. Mindy, We are looking into using a CMS to post student work from our capstone class in multimedia journalism at San Diego State. Do you have any recommendations on which CMS to use?
    Thanks –
    Becky Nee

  5. If reporters comment on their own stories, there has to be a sound system for denoting that those comments are left by that reporter.

    On our system all comments are anonymous and it’s well known that reporters aren’t allowed to comment on the website. If that policy were to change, I’d worry about anonymous commenters impersonating the reporter.

  6. If the reporter monitors his or her blog AND story comments — as should be the case — then the reporter will spot any impersonators.

  7. Pingback: Comments redux « A Like Affair With Words

  8. Pingback: Teaching Online Journalism » MVPs for February

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