How I learned to stop reading the comments and enjoy the silence

“Don’t read the comments” are four of the most common words in journalism today. While media strategies for news websites speak about reader engagement and conversations and dialogue, the reality is that journalists tell each other not to bother. Journalists are at the frontline of dealing with comments. These comments can be personal and mean and unhelpful and insulting. So why the obsession with engaging with them?

Social media survives on the more content the better. There is little quality control with tweets or YouTube videos or Facebook status updates. But editorial control is crucial for information. Information is not “content”. If we didn’t have editors, news stories would land scatter dash on the page regardless of their importance. In many ways, prurience already drives this. Tabloids splash stories about celebrities while countries invade each other. Stories on the “most read” lists on websites aren’t necessarily the ones that are the most “important”. 

Quality of comment sections is not an issue for just individual news sites, it’s an issue for all. Few are immune from the rants, the back and forth arguments, the insults to authors, the off topic musings. Yet all news sites share an overarching desire to facilitate this white noise. Why? It’s become groupthink amongst media companies that readers' thoughts and opinions should be valued. We live in an era of cheap and constant opinion where, given the endless platforms to publish one’s thoughts, it is assumed that those thoughts are worth being published.

Years after comment sections became standard on news sites, I have yet to see their benefit. If anything, the general tone, which tends to veer from aggressive to pedantic, is off-putting to more measured contributors who have something relatively valid to add. Within niche communities of standalone blogs, or blogs within news sites, communities can grow and if a decent standard is set, the comments can contribute to the topics.

But within the mainstream of news and opinion, it’s difficult to create a polite and informative atmosphere. The language of online commentary seems to be permanently stuck at an immature level of development. It is also painfully predictable. Comments are at their most vitriolic when “issues” or “values” are the subject of an article. An article about feminism will be followed by misogynistic comments. An article on religion will be followed by anti-religion or anti-atheist comments. Comments sections do not foster reasonable debate, they merely poke at the extremities of opinion. 

Yet news organisations are at the mercy of the reader. They think they need to make them feel wanted, included, valued, part of the process, privy to the mechanics of the news cycle. They want their opinions and photos and videos and thoughts and tweets and comments. Meanwhile, the reader is astounding the media with their ingratitude, demanding everything for free and telling them that their journalists are crap, wondering “how is this news?” and offering obtuse opinions on the author’s political leanings, compromising affiliations and professional history.

If I was a washing machine repair person, I probably would not march into someone’s house upon their Whirlpool breaking down and spend the first twenty minutes asking the customer how they would fix the malfunction and hand them the tools to give it a lash.

Yet that’s what modern online journalism does. It undercuts its own expertise by asking its customers what to do. This is the manifestation of insecurity in an industry that has spent the last decade second guessing itself and is imploding in the process. What the reader never stopped wanting is quality writing, yet “content” and the frequency of its delivery has overshadowed that very simple demand.   

There are of course clever ways design can influence quality input from readers. A reward system, which makes decent comments more prominent, is an obvious one, and something that ‘staff picks’ and similar design aspects achieve to some extent. Comment facilities should operate on a carrot and stick basis. “Bad” comments should not be facilitated, “good” comments should be rewarded. The reason people comment on articles is because they want their opinions to be heard and they feel like they have something important to say (even if it’s not relevant). If their “good” comments are rewarded, this will beget more “good” comments. If the pointless shouting is erased, it will act as a domino effect on other pointless shouting. Readers will begin to notice that off topic comments and insulting opinions aren’t given gold stars from teacher. 

I understand the drive to push journalists towards engaging with reader’s conversations. Social media has taken over our day to day communication and media companies want to get on board. But for the most part, a journalist engaging with the comments is akin to a footballer pausing to chat with the “fans” on the terrace throwing coins. Some will eat the banana with panache, others will get caught up in pointless and circular arguments with commenters. It’s not very productive to answer comments that are off topic, insulting, wrong, or just stupid. It’s time consuming and bears no fruit.

And if reader engagement is that important (outside of citizen journalism where the audience creates the information that colours the story) where are the successes? What is the point? What purpose does it serve? What value does it add? In my experience, if there is a particularly heightened tone in the comments, the journalist jumping in and “engaging” actually stokes the flames and is completely counterproductive to facilitating reasonable arguments. 

When I give talks to journalism students, they always ask me how I deal with negative feedback and trolling. Personally, I operate a policy of ignoring all feedback, positive and negative, unless it’s from colleagues or people I respect. If you disregard the comments that say they hate you, then you also need to disregard the ones that profess their love. You need to build resilience. You need to grow extremely tough skin. You need to not care about mean comments, which makes it equally difficult to give credence to decent ones. That’s part of the “game”.

But the “game” seems to require rules only for one team - the journalists’ side. The reader can say whatever they like (before it gets deleted), yet the journalist is meant to combat this with reason, explanation or pithy remarks or humour if they are so inclined. To what end? Why should a journalist bother? I could spend hours each day answering comments and arguing with people in the comments section, or, I could use that time working on ideas for other articles, researching, or writing. What do you think is a better use of my time, particularly as a freelancer? And why should journalists have to put up with this? Waking up in the morning to a barrage of insults is testing. No matter how thick your skin is, it has an impact. It effects your mental health. It can make you angry and frustrated and upset. 

Perhaps most dangerously, it might make you subconsciously - or totally consciously - hold back when you’re writing in the next article. You might reconsider writing something strongly worded or vaguely controversial just because you know you’ll get nasty comments about. That has dangerous implications for truth and honesty. Musicians who make their albums with the critics in mind tend not to come up with the most creative stuff. 

I don’t expect people to have sympathy for journalists, no more than we should have sympathy for celebrities when Kanye West rants about the injustice perpetrated by paparazzi against millionaires getting into their cars. Many journalists are egotistical,  annoying and bratty. Many are noble and truthful. Many are just doing their job the best way they can. But all of us deserve some level of decency in our professional lives, no matter what job we do.

I also understand that my point of view could be construed as elitist, that journalists are somehow “above” the reader, that journalists know better and that journalism should be dictatorial as opposed to “sharing”. But that’s because I believe the internet’s “sharing” culture has largely become about shouting. We see it everywhere, in how Twitter has become an echo chamber of shaming and roaring, in how YouTube comments are as dimwitted as ever, even after existing for the best part of a decade. That is not progress. Comment facilities do not follow the example in tone of the article above them, they follow the example of the tone of online "conversations" across platforms, which is largely terrible.

And all of this is before we even consider who gets targeted, and the lack of responsibility the industry is taking to protect female journalists, particularly female opinion writers, who are frequently subjected to vile misogynistic comments which their male counterparts never encounter. That’s a whole different conversation, but one also born from the increasingly violent and nasty tone of conversation in the online sphere.

I don’t engage with people shouting at me on the street. If someone at a Q&A started screaming and roaring down the back of the room, they’d be escorted out. So why should we not only expect that base level of conversation in comments section, and moreover, why should we assume journalists should engage with it? Readers and journalists are better than that, and each side deserves more.

Image credit: David Roessli