St. Louis Post Dispatch Declares That Banning Editorial Comments Will 'Elevate The Ferguson Conversation'

from the addition-through-subtraction dept

As we’ve been noting, there’s a growing trend afoot whereby some news websites have started unilaterally declaring the lowly news comment section dead, and therefore have started eliminating the ability for visitors to comment entirely. While it’s one thing to just close site comments and be done with it, sites like ReCode, Reuters and Popular Science have been quick to insist that they’re killing comments for the good of the “conversation,” which sounds so much better than “we closed news comments because we’re too cheap and lazy to police bile and spam.”

At a time when racial conversation couldn’t be more important, the St. Louis Post Dispatch has decided to join the war on comments, this week declaring that the paper would be eliminating comments from paper editorials completely. This is, the paper declares, because it’s very much concerned about having a “meaningful discussion”:

“We intend to use our opinion pages to help the St. Louis region have a meaningful discussion about race. So we are going to turn off the comments in the editorial section for a while, and see what we learn from it. (Comment will continue on news articles). Comments might return to the opinion pages. Or we might find that without them, the discussion ? through letters, social media conversations and online chats, rises to a higher level.”

Again, does anything say “we love conversation” quite like restricting conversation? Like ReCode and Reuters, the paper appears to believe that e-mail and social media are good enough substitutes for an open conversation on site — not understanding that part of building a community involves a cultivating a regular, engaged local readership, and protecting that readership from the angsty dregs of the Internet.

The paper justifies its move by leaning heavily on a recent University of Wisconsin-Madison study (also see this NY Times report) that found news story readers could have their opinions manipulated through completely unmoderated comments (something astroturfing and marketing firms have relied on for ages):

“In their study, published last year, researchers concluded that ?Much in the same way that watching uncivil politicians argue on television causes polarization among individuals, impolite and incensed blog comments can polarize online users.? In some cases, negative blog comments actually changed readers? perception of what they read, not just their opinions about it.”

But isn’t shifting opinions part of having any conversation, online or off? And is killing the comment section entirely really the way to handle aggressive, trolling, or misleading comments? It still feels like many outlets have just grown tired of managing their own communities, but instead of admitting that they’re not invested enough to spend time weeding the troll garden, they’ve taken to disingenuously claiming they’re somehow revolutionizing online conversation — by making sure there’s less of it.

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Comments on “St. Louis Post Dispatch Declares That Banning Editorial Comments Will 'Elevate The Ferguson Conversation'”

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Nom du Clavier says:

Car analogy

We really love riding our car, but too bad about all those pesky insects impacting the windshield and all that mud ruining the paintjob…

Therefore, we’ve decided to remove the engine, let the air out of the tires and use someone else’s car instead. But don’t worry: because we love our car so much, we’ll check insect and mud levels from time to time.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Moderation [was ]

Does moderating the comments even help the conversation?

Pre-moderation or retro-moderation?

In any case, no matter the system, I think it takes a very talented moderator, who knows the audience, has quick wits, and a deft touch. In fact, preferably a moderation team. Sadly, those gifted individuals are in short supply. But yes, in some instances they can help the conversation.

Otoh, even though I’ve participated in some few forums which I’d consider exceptionally well-moderated—still, myself, I tend to prefer forums where the norm is self-moderated conversation.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Moderation [was ]

Totally unmoderated except for removal of child pornography. The horrors of scrolling past objectionable material are not too much for the American public to bear. Stupid ideas will be seen to be stupid, and people will learn how to evaluate information on its merits. Frankly, the ability to sift and sort information on the basis of its merits is sorely missing from our society. Let your balls drop, America, and own your own mind.

Karl Bode (profile) says:

Re: Re:

Yes, in fact I was just reading this report, which suggests it didn’t take very much work to civilize a conversation:

“One surprisingly easy thing they found that brought civil, relevant comments: the presence of a recognized reporter wading into the comments.

Seventy different political posts were randomly either left to their own wild devices, engaged by an unidentified staffer from the station, or engaged by a prominent political reporter. When the reporter showed up, “incivility decreased by 17 percent and people were 15 percent more likely to use evidence in their comments on the subject matter,” according to the study.”

Plan on talking about that a bit in a follow up story next week.

tqk (profile) says:

Re: Re:

In some cases, negative blog comments actually changed readers’ perception of what they read, not just their opinions about it.

So what you are saying is that a discussion about a topic can change the way people think about it.

Wouldn’t it also follow that positive blog comments actually change readers’ perceptions? Why did they decide to ignore that half of the situation?

David says:

Re: Re: Re:

Probably because ‘positive’ comment would generally agree with the narrative of the article. The negative comments are probably debating the ‘con’ side of the issue, and doing it well enough to change opinion away from the ‘pro’ side.

Essentially, they may be worried that they are going to continually lose the debate, and thus, relevance.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

So what you are saying is that a discussion about a topic can change the way people think about it.

Wouldn’t it also follow that positive blog comments actually change readers’ perceptions?

I’ll give you the first part of my theory of pursuason. This describes what I call “normal pursuasion”, by which I mean typical pursuasion:

• Pursuasion works by infinitesimal degrees.

That’s just the first part of the theory, though. In less-typical cases, well, toss that theory out the window. Something else is going on.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

They had no positive comments to gather this kind of data from.

The “recent University of Wisconsin-Madison study” describes the experimental methods beginning on p.378 [p.6 in PDF].

Experimental Design

Participants were asked to complete a pretest survey that asked about media use habits, science knowledge and efficacy, and nanotechnology support, among other items. The experiment was between-subjects design and consisted of a neutral blog post from a Canadian newspaper that detailed equivalent risk and benefit information about nanotechnology. . . . Participants were given one of eight manipulations that varied by ‘‘user’’ comments under the post. . . .

Michael (profile) says:

Why does it seem like everyone in St. Louis suddenly went stupid?

First the police, then a riot (because those always work out well), then the police again tear gassing the media during riots, then pretty much every government official, then the grand jury, then back to the rioters (because burning down everything EXCEPT the police station is really going to hurt the police), and now the local news does this.

Doug says:

Right to comment

I dont’ disagree with the substance of this post, but the tone is a bit entitled sounding. Does the author somehow think sites have a *duty* to provide a comment section?

Phrases like “cheap and lazy”, “grown tired”, “admitting that they’re not invested enough” suggest that not having comments is in and of itself some egregious transgression.

Allowing comments may be a positive thing in general, it may have benefits for the community, and a site may face general decline in readers if it doesn’t have one, but if a site chooses not to allow comments, especially because moderating them has become too much of a burden, then that’s not evil, is it?

Presenting that as “elevating” the conversation is disingenuous crap, but that’s a separate issue. The outrage here seems directed at the notion of removing comments, not the notion of whitewashing the decision.

Karl Bode (profile) says:

Re: Right to comment

“Phrases like “cheap and lazy”, “grown tired”, “admitting that they’re not invested enough” suggest that not having comments is in and of itself some egregious transgression.”

I think it’s blocking conversation, then claiming you’re revolutionizing conversation is the part I make clear is silly and disingenuous. I’m not arguing that blocking comments is on par with thwarting cancer cures.

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: Right to comment

“Does the author somehow think sites have a duty to provide a comment section?”

Not a duty, of course, but an extremely good idea.

“Phrases like “cheap and lazy”, “grown tired”, “admitting that they’re not invested enough” suggest that not having comments is in and of itself some egregious transgression.”

Well, it is a transgression of sorts. Having a good comments section takes work but is of immense value. Forgoing something of great value because it’s a lot of work is laziness.

” if a site chooses not to allow comments, especially because moderating them has become too much of a burden, then that’s not evil, is it?”

Who said it was evil?

Personally, the thing that I find downright offensive is the excuse that they’re using: that restricting conversation somehow enhances it, and that the use of social media can possibly replace a comment section.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Right to comment

that restricting conversation somehow enhances it

I’d argue that say eliminating youtube’s comments altogether would enhance the conversation. As in removing it completely. The comments there actively make people dumber by elevating man’s abysmal true nature into normalcy.

I wouldn’t let my son set his eyes on them, lest he get the idea that that’s how conversations should be held. Those who spend their time hanging out with the dredges of humanity tend to join their ranks.

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Right to comment

“I’d argue that say eliminating youtube’s comments altogether would enhance the conversation”

Yes, YouTube is perhaps the prime example of a comment section that is such a cesspool that it’s about as useful as not having one at all.

But it’s the exception and not the rule, in my experience.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: While we're banning things . . .

I’m pretty sure that police brutality is technically already banned. The problem is 1) enforcing a definition of police brutality that the general public would agree with 2) enforcing the ban.

All the laws in the world against police brutality don’t mean much if the police and the court system go “No, no, that totally wasn’t brutality.”

tqk (profile) says:

Re: Re:

Comment sections on news sites are some of the most vile and disgusting displays of inhumanity on the planet.

So? They’re easy to ignore. That story yesterday here about the rookie cop who shot an innocent man devolved into a 2nd Amendment vs. guns == murder & suicide flame fest, yet all you had to do to ignore it was hit the spacebar a few times until you got past it. Or, you could join in if you preferred. No kittens drowned.

Some of the comments on stories in Al Jazeera make me shake my head in disbelief, and others in the same section are entertaining and educational. You take the good with the bad.

Pragmatic says:

Re: Re: Re:

I would argue that the bad ones have value too, if only to show the rest of us what’s going on in people’s heads. That people CHOOSE to believe insanely stupid things, mostly due to fear and hatred, needs to be addressed. How can we do that if we’re pretty much pretending that’s not happening?

If we can’t see it, we can’t challenge it. You might not be able to convert the person you’re talking to but you’ve got a reasonable chance of influencing the audience if you make a good enough argument.

When they change the subject or become aggressive, you’ve won.


John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: Re:

Depends on the news site. Many sites have excellent comment sections, and many have the opposite. Which way it goes depends on the nature of the site and how the comments are handled.

Personally, I tend to avoid sites that don’t allow comments or that have comment sections that are cesspools, because the most valuable part of almost all news & commentary sites is the comments. If those are missing or terrible, the site itself is much less valuable.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: To sum up:

I dunno what problems the rest of you have with their logic, makes perfect sense to me.

Actually, it may make a certain amount of sense, if you start with the supposition that “the conversation” is bigger than they are.

Take the idea that they’re participating in a huge conversation: a conversation running across many, many sites, involving a tremendous, humongous number of people, not even just across the country but world-wide: a global conversation.

And then add into the mix the idea that they can’t figure out how to get a quality conversation going in the comments at their own site. Fsvo “quality”. Iow, they aren’t getting the kind of comments they want, and can’t figure out how. Because it’s difficult.

Anonymous Coward says:

Well well, newspapers go for years trying to build a community that will support them and pay for their product. So guess what happens to your product when no one cares anymore? Your sales plunge.

The citizens around have good reason to be upset given the actions of their local government and that is news. If you don’t like the tone of the news nor the tone of the conversation you are part of the same problem we see in the main stream media all the time. It’s also part of why US citizens no longer trust their news sources to actually give them the news and not more propaganda.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Manipulation

The writers are the creators, and the readers are the consumers. Neither group should be allowed to manipulate anything. As we all know, the only people who should have any say in the matter are gatekeeper middlemen.

I much prefer having my opinions and emotions modified by a Facebook Newsfeed word-replacement algorithm.

AC says:

BBC and comments

A decade or so ago, the BBC ran a story on their utopian fantasy of the future of the world, and let readers post their comments about what they thought the future would look like. The comments were, almost entirely, diametrically opposed to the fantasy in the BBC article – ‘standing room only for 60 billion starving, cannibalistic, humanoids.’

Within hours, the BBC had removed all the user comments, and replaced the comment mechanism with a multiple choice poll, with options they viewed as palatable (A-Awesome, B-Super, C-Fantastic, etc.).

Orwell has an insightful comment about society and truth, I wonder if Google has blocked it yet?

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