The domino effect of online comments

By Ashley Crockett

Navigating the often harsh world of online comments can be like watching a train crash — you don’t want to see it, but you can’t look away as the sparks fly.
Thanks to the anonymity available on the Internet, anyone — from gas station attendants to CEOs of Fortune 500 companies — can hide behind a computer screen and comment about anything, in any way they want.
Could this system of expression be driving away potential sources for reporters?
Alex Schmidt, a freelance reporter and producer working for NPR, Spot.Us and other outlets, thinks so. She’s dealt directly with what she calls “broken commenting,” so-called because of the negative impact it has on her ability to do future reporting in certain areas.

Schmidt says stories posted on NPR’s website often receive helpful comments that force her “to double check (her) facts, follow instincts better, consider representing other points of view that hadn’t occurred to (her)…” But with her first story for The Los Angeles Times, she experienced the flip side of the commenting world — biting, nonconstructive attacks.

A story about front-lawn businesses, which often occur in immigrant neighborhoods, became a platform for anonymous commenters to share their resentment of illegal immigration — even though the article doesn’t mention the legal status of any sources.

“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,” Schmidt said.

Under the comments on articles posted on sits a small disclaimer that says: “Comments are filtered for language and registration is required. The Times makes no guarantee of comments’ factual accuracy. Readers may report inappropriate comments by clicking the Report Abuse link.” However, its Terms of Service says, “ cannot and does not monitor or manage all User Content, and does not guarantee the accuracy, integrity, or quality of User Content.” A laundry list of restricted content is included, such as offensive and discriminatory language.

But if no one monitors comments, except for those reported by users, then how effective can the Terms of Service really be? Very similar forms of this commenting system are used by numerous media outlets, making the issue seem insurmountable.

As Schmidt points out, sources for this story and future sources who have seen such comments are reluctant to speak with reporters. This fear of comment backlash means journalists are losing sources and opportunities to improve their stories.

Research by Bo Kyung Kim, a doctoral student at the University of Missouri School of Journalism, shows antagonistic comments can cast negative perceptions on corporations that are the focus of news stories. The study, which I participated in, showed a short article about a motor vehicle company and some disaster or problem it was facing. Several biting comments, from self-identified victims and the unaffected public, followed. Kim’s research shows these angry comments negatively affected participants’ perceptions of the subject, with victims’ comments having the greatest effect.
With such harsh criticisms for multi-billion dollar companies based on anonymous opinions alone, it’s understandable that sources, whether from those corporations or private individuals, would be hesitant to put themselves into the bullpen.
A reader under the name Brian Donohue commented on Schmidt’s piece about broken commenting, saying, “Increasingly, as a reporter I am hearing from people in the field (mostly every day folks as opposed to officials sources) that they do not want to be quoted or photographed because they fear what the comments will be. This is a hugely under analyzed negative effect of unfettered comments.”
Others chimed in to the discussion, praising commenting systems like Disqus that remove some of the Internet’s anonymity. As commenter Adam Klawonn says, “It’s harder to snipe when you can’t disappear.”

What do you think are some ways media outlets can better improve their own comment policies and systems?

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