Letters to the Editor

Some commenters aren’t ‘crazies’ | LETTER TO THE EDITOR

To the editor:

I’m writing in response to Micheal DuKaine’s suggestion that I apologize for referring to the Record’s commenters as “crazies.”

I would like, in fact, to apologize for painting, with a broad brush, the Record’s online commenters as “crazies.” Not all contributors to the comments section are “crazies,” of course (especially those I agree with, but even some I don’t agree with).

I was actually referring to the subset of commenters which the journalism industry commonly refers to as “trolls.”

According to the Poynter Institute, trolls “often will bait other users with inflammatory messages or personal attacks in order to create a disruption.”

The issue that readers have with trolls, flamers and the like in online forums such as the Record’s comments sections is that the outright mendacities, false accusations, inaccuracies, blatant personal attacks, conspiracy theories and ridicule perpetrated by a handful of very active posters are masqueraded as contributions to informed, intellectual democratic debate. Yet, they’re anything but.

Newspapers like the Record have a real problem when trolls degrade their editorial content, and they know it. It’s a known issue in the journalism industry right now that a great majority of readers are turned off by this type of behavior. It’s why a wider diversity of contributors is not seen participating in the online comments sections.

Online user-generated comments, once viewed as a cash cow of free content driving up unique visits and page views, are increasingly recognized as a source of diminishing returns as readers and advertisers, who don’t want to be associated with the negativity, go elsewhere.

Alarmed by this trend, online media from CNN, the New York Times, the Washington Post, Reuters, etc., to local community papers, are adapting measures to nurture higherquality user comments, and user comment experiences. These measures range from providing “ignore” buttons so that a reader can ignore certain commenters if they so choose, to using reporters as “troll whisperers” who try to elevate the tone of the discourse, to abandoning anonymity, to even requiring micro-payments for posts.

The case for these steps is cogently articulated in an editorial on March 31, 2010 titled “Anonymity brings out the worst instincts,” by Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Leonard Pitts Jr. of the Miami Herald. Pitts states that while newspapers thought online comment sections would provide a Jeffersonian ideal of free public spaces where each could have his or her own say, the reality has proven to be something else.

“For proof,” says Pitts, “see the message boards of pretty much any paper. Or just wade in the nearest cesspool. The experiences are equivalent.”

Russell Sparkman


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