Why ending open commenting on newspaper websites is a necessary move
By Monica Nieporte, OMNA President and Executive Director
Cleveland.com did a brave thing this week.
Because it had gotten too mean-spirited, too hateful and fighting the constant battle of trying to instill some civility into the forum was exhausting resources the news room needed elsewhere.
I applaud their decision and immediately fired off a note to editor Chris Quinn telling him so.
More news websites need to do the same.
Journalists need to understand they can be “pro free speech” without that equating to “anything goes”.
In fact, we need to do more to further distinguish our content from the disinformation on social media. Just saying “we aren’t fake news” rings kind of hollow when readers are allowed to post any random thought they have without regard to fact or truthfulness. Saying we are the “trusted” local news source rings hollow when you allow people to viciously verbally assault their neighbors, their community and the journalists who wrote the story. Not to mention the actual threats. It’s a ridiculous lowering of civility standards that unfortunately the entire society has gotten caught up in.
Instead of sinking to the level of Facebook and Twitter, we need to raise the bar for ourselves and be that trusted purveyor of truth and fact that we’ve always been proud to be in the past.
Years ago, it was thought that if we just made things easier for people (online commenting versus the rigid process of submitting a letter to the editor) we would spark more productive and insightful community discussion. Instead, allowing commenting (often times anonymous or behind pseudonyms) has been a breeding ground for hate and division in our communities. We may have achieved a “volume” goal but the unintended consequence of the more relaxed rules is the character of a lot of that added volume. Some try to “rein it in” but it’s a losing and never ending battle. In the meantime, there are other topics in the community that don’t get covered, don’t get investigated because of the time spent policing the comments. We become a time hostage to battling the trolls.
We need to admit that by providing such an open platform to these mean-spirited individuals we empower them. Others who have prejudices or jealousies feel safe to pile on their own hateful commentary. They feel safe to let profanity and name-calling drive their keystrokes. This isn’t what any of us intended or want.
We do have to engage people. We have to solicit reader feedback. But we have to do so in a way that is responsible to our employees, our fellow citizens and our communities. Just because the social media giants have washed their hands of any responsibility for what their members post does not mean it is the right thing to do. We will distinguish ourselves with readers and regain their trust and respect by being leaders, not followers.