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.