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One Star Tribune reporter's hatred of comments

Yesterday's piece on the newspaper comment cesspool drew a noteworthy reaction from Star Tribune columnist Jon Tevlin, who shot me a note seconds after the story went live:

"Time to address this. I've tried. We need to insist on real names, real people. Sources are starting to decline quotes, photos, because commenters will slay them. I had one comment call a source a pedophile. Out. Of. Control."

I honestly hadn't thought much about how comments affect newsgathering — in MinnPost's rules-bound world, the commenter-reporter relationships have been largely positive, and turned up tips and follow-ups.

But of course, I asked Jon for more details:

"I have had sources asked not to be named because they knew people would dismantle them in the comments section. Both [fellow columnist] Gail [Rosenblum] and I have had people refuse to have their photos taken because they were overweight or, well, not perfect. And they specifically said it was because people would call them names in comments.

"One of my sources in the Petters stories called me on a Sunday and said a post had been up for hours that accused him of being convicted of molesting a child in another state. I called in and they removed it. While I read every email to me,  I NEVER read the comments on stories. If I did I'd get so depressed I'd probably quit journalism."

What a conundrum for papers that crave page views and ad revenues from user-generated pages ... and, oh yeah, from their journalists' journalism.

Getting folks to talk is one of the hardest things reporters do, and given our industry's plague of "anonymous sources," anything that encourages fewer named names is bad.

Sure, on some level, people need to stand by their words; those have always been public, right? I remember one pre-Internet-era radio show that regularly commented on the "hotness" of any woman appearing in local newspaper photos.

But of course, the Net makes those stocks in the town square that much more visible, and vegetable throwers that much more numerous.

The child abuse thing is truly chilling. I only have a vague knowledge of liability law (commenters welcome, though you will be moderated!), but orgs are OK if they don't edit the defamatory comments, and take them down in a timely manner.

Still: allowing the sewage is an abdication of journalism's fundamental responsibility. I know it's out of fashion to be a gatekeeper, and journalists can be overly pissy about erecting walls. But on some level, substantially abdicating that role undercuts a key comparative advantage. Anyone can create an online jungle; there are precious few clearings.

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Comments (37)

I too have grown tired of the vitriol that arises in the comments sections. There could be a story about a lost puppy and the eventually the comments turn to blaming the democrates/republicans etc. It happens every time so I choose not to read them anymore

I had never even thought of the journalistic ramifications. Mr Tevlin brings up a very interesting point.

I know that the comments sections generate more page hits which means more ad revenue, but they would get more hits from me if they were moderated better.

If you read the Strib comments at all, you quickly begin to think we live in a city and state of bigoted, irredeemable morons. And the PPress's are worse. Comments have to be monitored/moderated, if only because when they appear on your website, they reflect on the quality of your paper. If you wouldn't let such a hateful bunch hang around your house, why do you let them hang around your website?

The comments on the Strib are beginning to drive me away from that site. It makes we wonder who the Strib considers it's target audience. It's certainly not me if the comments are any indicator.

I also find that comments reflect back on the quality of the site. This is unfair no doubt, but there is a sense that if the site is read by reasonable people, then the site is providing reasonably good journalism. And conversely.

The comments sections of the Strib's online version have truly become a hangout for the mean and dumb.

You may have noticed that comments are always disabled for any story that has any connection with Somalis or Muslims. That's because the hatred flies so thick and fast that the most determined bigots even post their prejudiced diatribes in the comments sections for unrelated articles.

Another predictable feature of the comments is that ANYTHING by Nick Coleman or Garrison Keillor and anything ABOUT Al Franken will provoke foam-at-the-mouth hatred, no matter what the actual content of the article or opinion piece is.

I don't listen to right-wing talk radio, but I can always tell what the line of the day is on KTLK because several mean and dumb posters in succession will use it. During the RNC protests, it was "dirty, smelly hippies," although not always spelled correctly. A few months ago, it was "hate-filled liberals." When the Strib announced its financial troubles, poster after poster used the phrase "the Red Star" (Rrrriiight, a paper that regularly carries columns by George F. Will, Michael Gerson, Deborah Saunders, and Charles Krauthammer is Marxist. Whatever.)

I occasionally amuse myself by posting on the Strib site under a pseudonym, mostly because I do not want a bunch of anonymous yahoos knowing who I am or where I live. (I also declined to participate in a meetup organized by a middle-of-the-road poster for the same reason.) For example, when one pinhead declared that "DFL voters just want to continue living on welfare," I came back with the question, "Do you really think that over half of all Minnesotans are on welfare?" I wasn't the least bit surprised when my post received a few unfavorable ratings. Facts and thought-provoking questions only confuse and infuriate the typical Strib poster.

I'd be willing to post under my real name if everybody else, right-wingers included, were required to post under their full names. I bet a lot of the keyboard fascists wouldn't be so willing to regurgitate hate radio talking points if they suffered real-world consequences for their swill, such as their employers finding out what idiots they are.

Every single comment on this thread so far is right on. How funeral coverage for Michael Jackson, for instance, can turn into a searing commentary on what conservatives vs liberals believe is beyond me. They guy DIED, and probably not of his own fault, give it a rest and let his past be his past.

Also, when comments become slanderous and vindictive between one commentator and another is what's really sad and pathetic.

In an online world, we're not really anonymous (tracking host IP, etc), but we can certainly say things that we're not allowed to say face to face, and that's what's depressing. If someone were to say their posted comments to another poster of comments, we'd hear about the bloody outcome on the news...it's just sad, sad, sad...

Finally, for the infrequent times I *do* actually read the comments, could these big sites please incorporate a spell check / CAPS check feature, instead of relying solely on the browser to do it? If I'm going to read a comment, it at least better be somewhat grammatically correct. ;)

But if the Strib doesn't allow comments, how else will I know that my neighbors, co-workers, and "friends" are secretly racist, homophobic, gender-biased, or outright mean when they're afforded anonymity??? I mean, sure, we're all "Minnesota Nice" on the outside, but give me the cover of a fake screen name, and I can blast those Muslims or Gays or Criminals (or CJ) really good! [Were those really the exact words Terry Sauer used to describe what types of stories they don't allow commenting on David?]

On the flip side, what about the positives of commenting? I checked out LaVelle Neal's blog the other day and there were 484 comments about the Twins game that day! Yes, some of the posters seem to post every 4th or 5th item as they carry on running conversations with other posters, but it can make for some interesting (if not overwhelming) reading.

I'm not sure that it's a solution, but I think things might be better if the reporters actually participated in the comments section, and called out BS when people write it. I find that people behave differently when they know that a member of the staff is watching.

You can also steer the conversation if you participate.

It may not fix the problem at newspapers - where the comment volume is so high, it may not be possible to stay out of it. But I find it somewhat silly that newspapers and TV stations claim they want to foster conversation, but you never see the institution taking part in that conversation.

It's sad and strange. And it shouldn't have to be that way: most comment forums at other media outlets -- professional media and blogs -- are reasonably intelligent and civilized.

There just must be something about the cultural impact of the daily newspaper and its website. It's open. It belongs to everyone. It represents authority and yet is freewheeling and open...and reasonably anonymous.

I'll weigh in on the side of making people identify themselves as a way to stop the inanity. There is no absolute right to anonymity online. People interested in actually having conversations will have them there. And people who want to vent have plenty of free options to do just that.

Requiring that commenters use their real names goes a long way toward fixing the problem. It's self-evident - just look at the difference in the tone and quality of posts on MinnPost vs. the Strib. People feel awfully brave behind a cloak of anonymity. Not so much when they have to post their identity.

I can't stand reading the Strib comments any more. Occasionally I would toss out a comment designed to infuriate the trolls, just for amusement, but that lost its charm too, mainly because the responses are so predictable. What amazes me is the way some of these trolls seem to hang out on the site all day, just waiting to post some vitriol on their favorite topics or whipping boys; global warming, obama, liberals, Nick Coleman or Garrison Keillor, etc. Seems like a pathetic sort of hobby.

Unfortunately i am not a startrib online reader and so am unable to comment on their comment difficulties. I do however enjoy comments and always look for comments to further enlighten myself after reading anything on the web. Back and forth commentaries between commentators are particularly illuminating.

Real names for real people should be a requirement for all comments.

Filtering out unorthodox spelling and grammatical usage would deprive readers of an additional insight into the comments origin.

When the founding fathers created this country, and Ben Franklin said, "you have a republic, if you can keep it.", the level of political discourse in the 1790's was vitriolic. However, the "anti federalists" accepted the majority position of the "federalists" in the Constitutional convention, which had a slim majority.

The traitor Aaron Burr murdered Alexander Hamilton in a duel resulting from the divisions of the country.

Nevertheless, the republic persevered, and prospered. It is better for "citizens" to vent their rage, however impotent and stupid, than shoot each other, as occurs elsewhere in the world.

The major reason for their rage is the frustration resulting from the lack of vision and programs from politicians of both parties. Take health care "reform" - single payer, which has worked so well for Medicare since 1965, is "off the table" - so Nero-Obama says. Therefore, Klobuchar, Franken, and Ellison will vote for whatever piece of crap comes from the White House, which is dependent on Wall Street hedge funds and HMO's. Instead, Obama's Wall Street Hirelings have created a "Med Pac" board to decide what medical procedures are viable and permissible for Grandma.

This is insane, and cause for a lot of frustration. There is a viable case that Obama is worse for the country than Bush. No wonder people are going mad.

If you want better political discourse in America, then come up with some political leadership like Franklin Roosevelt, John Kennedy, Alexander Hamilton, Abraham Lincoln, Robert LaFollette, Sr., Charles Lindbergh, Sr., Jay Cooke, Henry Carey, and similar giants who actually built this country.

What we have now is a bunch of liberal lap dogs and conservative con artists.

A comments or discussion section can be a valuable tool for media sites to engage their audience and to foster dialogue. Unfortunately most media organizations just aren’t willing to invest in the resources necessary to do this. Staff resources need to be devoted to not only monitoring comments but also engaging the audience and guiding the discussion. If media organizations aren’t will to devote the resources to make it valuable then it isn’t worth doing.

What kind of moron writes online comments?

I've always appreciated the editing function of news sites and wish they'd apply it to their comments section. Select those that move a conversation forward, add interest or another perspective. It'd be the same process as selecting Letters to the Editor. If the media can't take the time to do that, then eliminate the opportunity for comments. No big deal.

A lot of the problems with the Strib commenters would be solved if they required real names AND had a reasonable and consistently enforced moderation policy.

The Strib removes comments on a regular basis, but mostly only in reaction to complaints from other commenters using the "Flag" button. Sometimes edgy-but-germane comments are "disappeared", while other comments that are gross and off topic remain. They do not seem to be willing to adequately staff--or train their web editors--for anything resembling an effective, or even a consistent policy.

The pool of regular commenters there seems to be steadily shrinking; a sure sign of a takeover by a community of comment trolls.

When someone writes a letter to the editor to a newspaper, that letter writer must use his or her real name and face what consequences may come from the letter. I have no clue why comments would be any different.

I also believe that all newspaper comment sections should be moderated. Currently, newspapers are worried about competing with blogs and other online sources that claim to cover the news. The one thing newspapers have going for them is that the staff is held accountable for what is published. Why would an industry that prides itself on accountability allow its readers to make wild, unsubstantiated claims on its Web site?

Yes, there's the issue of page views and revenue. However, I believe that moderating the comments and demanding accountability will be a positive for newspaper sites. Readers will realize that sites that hold everyone accountable are a source of actual news. This will make them stand out from the blog sites that claim to cover the news but do nothing more than spew opinions and then call those opinions facts.

As someone who has complained about the use of anonymous sources, I'd feel like a hypocrite if that didn't seal the case for real names on comments. I'm not actually upset about how Rsenblum and Tevlin are using anonymous sources, because it seems appropriate to hide identities when sources would be subject to retaliation. My complaints come when people in power say what people in power want said, and use anonymity to lie. So if the columnists need to do that with people afraid of a virtual pillorying, that's OK.

A good case in point is today's Strib article on the ESPN reporter keyhole video. A disturbing number of commenters cannot get past the "she doesn't even look that hot" stage of discussion. How old are these people?

That kind of crap would vanish instantly if real names were required. The print edition doesn't allow anonymity.

I sincerely believe this situation exists solely to bump up the Strib's web traffic. Nothing spikes numbers like a nasty fight in the comments.

I had the opportunity to talk to Nick Coleman at a Drinking Liberally gathering (Thursdays, 6-9, 331 Club) awhile ago.
I asked him about the nasty comments that saturated anything he wrote. He said he complained and was told that there were language filters. So a name calling commenter had misspelled douche bag and it went through. The irony of ignorance was not lost as he told us this.

Two words that get a comment deleted everytime I posted it at the Strib.

Wellstone Assassination

This is out of bounds and mustn't be uttered every again.

Jason, bless his heart, brings up a really interesting point. How many of us have actually called or otherwise talked to someone who sent e-mail and noticed how quickly they back away from the vitriol, and are surprised someone bothered to engage them?

Glenn Mesaros proves the point -- any civil conversation can be converted into a political diatribe with enough effort. Perhaps an example that isn't so close to home and timely would have been a better idea?

I support the position the Strib should require real names (and photos?). It might be a little difficult at first to verify and administer, but at the same time it will be a start at blocking the grosser commenters. Some sort of clean-up is needed that's not debatable.

Then the Strib should open the gates and let the opinions fly.

I oppose moderation in any form. Whoever is hired to "moderate" will basically decide which comments are "moderate" and which aren't... here comes the judge! And there will be censorship, period, and end of story. CNN regularly engages in censorship and so do a few other national media outlets. They all pretend to be "the press" and "journalists".

The reason is the media, print and broadcast, are more entertainers than journalists. Their bosses conduct focus groups, and they regularly evaluate market shares and what is tasteful to, and generates profits for, the advertisers and investors. If you think the Strib or TPT are about journalism, well, I guess you are free to think what you want. It isn't my job to wise-up chumps to P.T. Barnum.

I try to sympathize with the plight of the reporter. I realize reporters aren't getting the resources the need to investigate their stories. You can see this as clear as a bell; it's almost as if each a story had a little disclaimer box that read, "Due to insufficient funds, this reporter was cut short of doing research and conducting all the interviews they believed necessary to write this story."

Yet, at the same time, the reporters must sympathize with the reader who KNOWS how poor the stories are becoming in general. It seems as if reporting the news is turning into a crummy job.

In my opinion the Strib has made a habit of regularly slapping together stories and editorials without doing the grunt work and the research needed for fair reporting.

Way too often the Strib comes off as a stenographer/publicist for local and state government and big business.

Additionally, and it's the last straw for many, the Strib disallows public comments on stories alleging police abuse and sometimes other political controversies.

This policy has caused many posters to see red.

Personally, I moved my commenting to the WaPo and NYT and left the Strib altogether. There are very few restrictions on these other newspapers and the few that exist are merely blocks on certain words their editors deemed inappropriate. This works for me, it's their newspaper and they give me open access to it and to every story they publish on-line. If there's a prohibited word or two, I'll find another word to make my point.

I would have canceled the print edition to the Strib long ago except my partner insists she needs to read the obituaries. Ironic isn't it, its only the stories of the dead that keeps the Strib on our doorstep.

I'd never thought about this affecting journalism either. I know online comments certainly can raise my hackles, but somehow in my head I always separated the stories from the "discussion."

Also, if you want to see some wild west commenting action, head over to Kare 11's site (note: I actually can't see comments on Kare 11's site right now, so maybe they took them down).

I agree with pretty much everything said here.

Jason is EXACTLY right when he says participation by the reporters helps. Commenters tend to temper their comments when they know the reporters are participating.

Compare the comments on the news stories at the Strib (where there is no participation by the writers) to the sports blogs where the writers often pipe in on the conversation. Though there's a lot of noise on the sports pages, they don't go over the top NEARLY as often as they do on the hard news stories.

Requiring real names are important, I agree, but I think adding photos to the commenters would help as well, simply because it's harder to criticize someone to their face.

Adding a social network component to it would also go a long way, I think. If my comments that I posted on a story were also available to my entire network, I'd tend to behave for fear of looking like an ass in front of my friends.

Also, adding a more pronounced rating system that rewarded and highlighted the good posts and penalized the poor posts to the point that they disappeared would help.

It's about accountablity and reward and punishment. Make people own their words and encourage the good while punishing the bad.

Glad that this discussion is taking place. I've found for myself that the unbridled comments have the impact of reducing my perception that things are being fairly dealt with. I’ve wondered how it can be that reporters and editors theoretically work hard to get a balanced, factual story and then, in the end, the facts are run over rough-shod by readers. I think that, originally, the idea to allow readers to comment on stories was a decent one, and was meant to encourage sharing of viewpoints. That rapidly descended into name calling and worse. One of the lessons learned from this, it seems, is one of the early strengths of social media sites such as Twitter. By encouraging transparency and that any personal bias be revealed, our Followers can more easily analyze what we are saying. It would seem a move toward that same transparency in other media can only be positive.

My first experience with a comments section was at the Pionner Press just after the Wellstone plane crash. It was appalling. Most of the comments were so harsh, things like: "I am glad that pinko commie is dead". Anyone who dared to say something good about the family was immediately trashed by at least a dozen different (?) posters. The site was effectively taken over. Of course any speculation on the cause of the crash that differed from the oft changing official story was also massively picked on. The comment "thread" was so spaced apart and filled with constant Wellstone bashing, that most gave up anything nice to say in memorial of the tragedy.
By now it should be apparent that I have a conspiratorial bent. I am certain that there are not that many wing nuts out there. These trolls are using multiple pseudonyms and are getting paid to ruin any meaningful discussion by loading the sections up. This is all part of the right wing noise machine that allows the very few to control the many.

I like the mechanism where everybody can always see their own comments whether or not they've been rejected/filtered. Slows the haters down.

I think what the comments section on all our papers need is a user identity. Here at MinnPost, that's achieved by using a real name. It can also be achieved by requiring a username with the number of posts they've made and a required avatar that stays with the commenter. There's a commenter on avclub.com known as "ZODIAC MOTHERFUCKER" who writes hilariously misinformed comments in all caps, and as a result the other users have adopted him as one of their own, because he's not just any troll. He's their troll.

Hats off to David and Jon for shining some light on this issue.

MinnPost opinions here are interesting, but among comments complaining about nastiness & lack of civility on the blog being discussed, I noted the following descriptions of "them": wing nuts; trolls; haters; crazies; bigoted, irredemable morons; the mean and dumb; keyboard fascists; idiots; BS; liberal lap dogs; conservative con artists; moron; crap; and right wing noise machine. I am 100% for civility, but "why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother's eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?"

After posting my first comment here and finding out how long it takes to show up, I realize why the relatively unmonitored site this one is castigating is so popular. Immediate posting allows a flow of conversation that this one inhibits. It's personal opinion about whether spontaneity or censored civility is preferable. I detest incivility, but I did notice a lot of humor on the other board.

Shawn,

Volunteer comment moderators screen and post comments throughout the week on two-hour shifts. During evenings and over the weekend (which is when you posted your comment), only a few people do the checking, so posting often takes longer. Thought you'd want to know.

Laurie Kramer
Volunteer comment moderator

When done in a proper manner (such as these fine comments here), I think commenting on journalism adds an wonderful extra layer of depth to a story we never would have had without the good ol' internets. It takes the "letter to the editor" one step further and the fact that MinnPost writers frequently jump into the comments themselves is wonderful.

That said, aside from MinnPost, I've never seen a comment section executed in a way that added any depth or real discourse.

Did I mention I love MinnPost?

I find it interesting that commentators on this blog entry who are allegedly complaining about the "mis-informed" and "mean and dumb" (to quote posts above) have used this comment thread to do the same thing they are supposedly complaining the commentators of the Star Tribuen do, maybe just with some cleaner language. A poster above claims never to listen to talk radio, yet knows what KTLK's topics are daily because according to the poster the right wing posts the hatred of talk radio to stories by Nick Coleman or on Al Franken. I am wondering if the poster checked out comments on Katherine Kersten's blog or any story on or about Norm Coleman the last two years. There is a fringe on the right wing, don't get me wrong, but to come here and post that the cause of cesspool comments is the right picking on the left is not providing the full picture. Leave any story online long enough the divide of right and left comments (hateful and relatively reasonable) ends up being about a 50/50 split.

Decent blog/comments section on StarTribune.com: the twins blogs. For the most part a respectful group with some real discussion going back and forth.

The "signal to noise ratio" as we used to say in the old internet discussion groups can get bad. On the other hand, the Star Tribune recently had an article on the recent increase in urban rabbits and gave as a cause "global warming/climate change".

That said on Friday early am the Strib had a story on the halting of the "cash for clunkers" program. Many stupid and inaccurate comments (one poster claimed he bought back his "clunker the next day!!!) On the other hand a lot of people with first hand knowledge made very intelligent comments. In my case, I was looking at a new PT Cruiser. I was totally willing to "embargo my clunker and the new PT until everything was nailed down. The dealer "assured" me that I had the $10K driveway price but said the dealer had to disable the engine and tranny on my S-10 BEFORE seeking the "clunker $4500. I couldn't pin down who would "eat" the $4500 if the clunker deal wasn't approved. That was the deal killer. I would stick to my rights but I didn't want the dealer left hanging either since many are distressed.

As for the "banned" Star Tribune subject: Yes they do bring out the racists and bigots but many are subject where there has been little open public discussion like refugee immigrants on welfare.

BTW: Minnesota is #8 in welfare per capita.
http://www.cnbc.com/id/31910310?slide=9

A bit late to the game here - apologies - but this is truly a fabulous article, and reading the intelligent commentary is proof positive that the non-anonymous approach works.

This problem goes far beyond journalistic sites, though -- the quality of discourse in any online community is dramatically improved by eliminating anonymity. To this point, there are a couple pieces worth mentioning.

First, consider dinner rules, as we referred to them at Amazon.com, where I spent almost 9 years. If you think of the rules of participating in a forum as similar to the rules you observe when you go to a dinner party, it's a great start. You wouldn't ever stand up and scream obscenities or insult the host, for example, at a dinner party. Most forums miss the simple step of writing down their dinner rules -- what is expected -- for their users. MinnPost, on the other hand, does this very well. It has a real impact.

Second, real names are really a proxy for a link to the *reputation* of a person. A reputation is the history of what you've said and done. A name is a great start, because (assuming people don't fabricate one), a person's name will be picked up by crawlers and thus become searchable. To strengthen the mechanism, linking directly to an ecosystem, such as Facebook or Twitter, where people care tremendously about their reputations, is a very powerful and simple way to invoke reputation. Happily, reputation portability is available and straightforward to utilize on the Web today with products like Facebook Connect and Twitter Sign In.

Congrats on creating an excellent forum in the MinnPost, and thanks for the stimulating article.

Cheers.