The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The case against comments


Tech news site Re/code become the latest news organization this week to bar readers from commenting on articles hosted on its site.

"We thought about this decision long and hard, since we do value reader opinion," co-executive editors Kara Swisher and Walt Mossberg told readers in a note posted Thursday. "But we concluded that, as social media has continued its robust growth, the bulk of discussion of our stories is increasingly taking place there, making onsite comments less and less used and less and less useful."

Re/code isn't alone in axing comment sections. Last year, Popular Science ditched its comment sections. Earlier this month, Reuters pulled the plug on user comments on news stories too, although they remain an option on blogs and opinion pieces. Pacific Standard Magazine decided to end comments and advocated for shifting the conversation they usually continue off the article itself and onto social platforms.

Pacific Standard digital director Nicholas Jackson explained:

An argument for the end of comments isn’t actually an argument against the value of comments. They just don’t belong at the end of or alongside posts, as if they’re always some extension of or relevant to the original. They belong on personal blogs, or on Twitter or Tumblr or Reddit, where individuals build a full, searchable body of work and can be judged accordingly.

These sites have a point: Unfiltered comment sections can become cesspools filled with hate and spam. And hiring employees to monitor the conversation can be costly, while technology filters often to not catch all potentially abusive posts.

And abuse is rampant, especially on controversial topics. A recent study by a professor at the University of Houston examined 900 comments on articles about immigration from 11 newspaper Web sites. More than 40 percent of comments were "uncivil" -- including language that was vulgar, racist, profane or hateful. The study also suggested anonymity may be part of the problem: More than half of anonymous comments were uncivil, compared to only 28.7 percent of non-anonymous comments.

Increasingly, news sites require users to register to leave a comment, and most have discussion policies limiting abusive language or behavior. (Readers who want to comment on an Washington Post article must register for the site or sign in via Facebook.)

Still many, many journalists I know just don't read comments. It's not that they don't value readers' insights -- it's just not worth having a day ruined by the vitriolic ad hominem attacks that nearly always manage to slip in.

So why keep dedicated comment sections around? There are many venues online that provide systems that are better adapted to having meaningful, engaging conversations about online content. Sites like reddit have found ways to use the crowds to prioritize their most insightful and interesting responses to linked content. And almost all writers have some sort of social media presence and engage with readers on at least one of those platform. That's where much of the discussion happens now anyhow, as evidenced by the number of news stories with comment sections left completely empty even if they receive a respectable amount of traffic.

"Much of the well-informed and articulate discussion around news, as well as criticism or praise for stories, has moved to social media and online forums," wrote Reuters Digital executive editor Dan Colarusso. "Those communities offer vibrant conversation and, importantly, are self-policed by participants to keep on the fringes those who would abuse the privilege of commenting."

The problem with this state of play, from the perspective of media outlets, is that these external sites and services are reaping the traffic benefits that come along with readers engaging in an extended dialogue. But if publishers can't create as robust a platform for these conversations as Twitter and Facebook, it's hard to blame readers for preferring the experiences they can have elsewhere online.

Some outlets are still competing to engage in that space. Gawker Media, for instance, is now running its own Kinja platform -- an integrated commenting and blogging system. But there have been pitfalls.

In August, the staff of Gawker Media's Jezebel blog posted an open letter to the company's management over its handling of what they called the site's "rape gif problem." For months, the Jezebel staff wrote, a person or persons posted animated images of "violent pornography" in the discussion section of stories on the site. This upset both readers and staff members --who were tasked with moderating the comment sections -- but management hadn't prioritized developing a solution, the open letter said. 

Two days after the open letter, Jezebel's Jessica Coen said the company had updated its comments system to limit the exposure of the offending posts.