What Are The New Obligations Of Readers?

    by Chris O'Brien
    June 17, 2009

    A few weeks ago, I was reading an interesting story about the state of the Columbia Journalism School that appeared on the New York Magazine website. In short, the story tried to examine concerns about how well Columbia was making the transition to the digital journalism era.

    After reading the story, I dutifully tweeted a link to it to those following me through my Next Newsroom account:

    Columbia J-School struggles to adapt to the digital age: http://is.gd/mY0s “F—- new media,” says one prof.

    A short time later, I received this reply from ajsundby:


    nextnewsroom That nymag post has many reporting holes in it. If you bothered to look at the comments, you’d know that. You’ve had a week.

    That phrase gnawed at me for quite awhile: “bothered to look at the comments.” I believe that at the time I tweeted the link, there were several dozen comments. When I checked today, it was up to 71.

    But am I really obliged to read the comments? Says who?


    Of course not. The story was long enough on its own. And I didn’t feel compelled to wade through the ensuing conversation.

    But clearly a conversation had emerged around it, challenging some of the facts and assumptions. And in that case, if I didn’t read the comments, did I in fact actually read the story? Is the “story” now the original article plus the comments? And if I didn’t consume the whole enchilada, should I refrain from recommending it, tweeting it, posting it on Facebook?

    No Hard and Fast Rules

    I don’t think there can be any hard and fast rules on this. But since commenting on articles continues to cause such heated discussions, I have a few thoughts on this from the perspective of a reader.

    First, I just don’t want the pressure of feeling like I’m required to read all the comments. It’s just not realistic. I don’t have the time, except in the rare cases when I’m feeling particularly passionate about a topic and I want to really dive in.

    Second, I recognize that comments are important. But if you really want to overcome my reluctance to engage, then consider this yet another in a long line of pleas to improve commenting systems. Ideally, reporters or someone at the news organization would identify the best comments and highlight them by incorporating them into updates to the original article.

    In the case of the New York Magazine article, at some point someone added an editor’s note acknowledging some of the feedback in the comments. (Though I wouldn’t have seen the note if I hadn’t gone back to re-read the story to write this post.)

    I’m sympathetic that this might not always be possible given time and resources. So, third, embrace a commenting system that allows readers to help rate and boost the best, most insightful dialogue. The folks at SFGate.com have a pretty good system. Not perfect, but helpful when there are hundreds of comments on a story. I can click on the “recommended” tab and get the ones that garnered the most votes.

    You might do all this. And I still might ignore the comments. And when I do, I’m going to try not to feel guilty.

    Tagged: columbia journalism school comments new york magazine sfgate
    • I don’t feel any obligation to read through comments either. Too often the comments are inane.

      Seems to me it’s the responsibility of the article’s author to make note of the holes pointed out by the commenters AND to change the article as appropriate. And to do it in something resembling real time. If there were several dozen comments on the story when you first read it and that editor’s note had not yet been appended, that’s not quick enough.

    • You highlight the real value add of a reporter on the web. Post and run away just ain’t going to do it.

      To create any new understandings from a conversation someone has to moderate. Moderate means compare, contrast, find disagreements, clarify them, and put them back in the mix.

      In the world of education everyone rails against chalk and talk. But in the world of journalism, whose ostensible purpose is to educate a community, the general practice is post and run.

      The notion of teacher as mentor is pretty mainstream. How about journalist as mentor of the conversation that ensues after a thought provoking story?

    • Your right it is not up to us to read the comments the content and any corrections should be included in the article (maybe as an update). It is interesting to read comments though as news sites are often one sided and the various comments open your mind up to new ideas about the topic at hand.

    • RJS Philly

      In this age of cummulative and compounding journalism, of truth by consensus I think comments obviously become relevant in a way they never would have in the past. I don’t think, however, that the idea of wiki-news compels a blogger or other journo-commentator to provide a comprehensive perspective. The fact is stories are ever changing and by posting a story a blogger might change the story itself. The responsibility of all good journalists is to raise the question. As a blogger if you have an opinion it will be considered as a part of the whole. If you waited until all comments were in before posting a story, seems to me you’d always be behind the story and by definition irrelevant.

      Interesting topic… thanks for raising it.

    • I don’t think the fact that you tweet an article means you are testifying to it’s truthfulness, accuracy, or even that you agree with it. The reader has some responsibility to read it and decide for themeselves whether it’s believable, accurate, or worth recommending.

    • StickyKeys

      I can understand anyone wanting to ignore the comments section associated with their articles – it can be damaging to ones ego to experience the text based equivalent of a barrage of rotten cabbages & shouted expletives in response to something you’ve said. The comments section at its best though is a place to expand the conversation you have started regarding the topic and some of the most interesting information can be gained when informed audience members get to have their say.

      A few ways to help minimize the ‘noise’ that competes with the ‘signal’ on comment boards are:
      1) use captcha to prevent spam-bots from junking up your threads
      2) require users to create accounts in order to post – if you care enough to say something ‘worthwhile’ you will register
      3) allow individual users to flag abusive accounts so as to alert admins to troublemakers – repeat offenders get their IPs banned/blocked
      4) allow users to flag other accounts for ‘ignore’ – so that trolls can be neutralized/starved for attention

      Number 4 is IMO the most effective feature a comment thread can have – otherwise the trolls/flamers can ruin it for everyone. A good example of sites with and without these features are HuffPo and Crooks&Liars (both fairly ‘liberal’ news aggregate/comment sites). HuffPo has the abusive flag and active moderators but no ‘ignore user’ flag/filter so that every right wing culture warrior from Drudge & LGF can show up and post mountains of repetitive blather, cut-n-paste propaganda screeds, and other ‘noise’ to drown out any conversational signal that may be happening there. C&L on the other hand has an ‘ignore user’ flag and that means I never have to read troll-spew more than once – then it’s flagged and filtered so I can read worthwhile contributions from people interested in the conversation – rather than trying to drown everyone else out with craziness.

    • Roswitha

      Thank you for a thought-provoking item. I feel especially strongly about MichaelJ’s comments about moderating. The journalist as moderator of user-added comments (along with a good user rating system) elevates a thread of comments into a potentially enlightening conversation.

    • Dreamingkat

      Do you think having the option in a commenting system to highlight sections of the text that your comment pertains to, and having a small bar of footnote links in the margin next to the main article would help the conversation any? General comments regarding the entire article would continue to be at the bottom.

      I love the idea of the “ignore user” flag. I’d like to “one up” it and add the ability to “trust” another users “ignore” flags. Then your account automatically ignores whoever they’ve ignored too. I’d also like the ability when “ignoring” to ignore the user for “just this thread” or “for all threads”. Some people are reasonable most of the time, but really crazy on some topics.

    • David

      ummmm…. How about doing something about the original problem–poor journalism–instead of complaining about the fallout? It seems to me that we are skirting the foundational issue of why our nation’s journalism sucks so bad that articles are printed “with huge holes” so frequently that user comments are better informed….

    • First, thanks to everyone for chiming in. I agree that the writer/reporter is making a mistake by not reading the comments. I always make it a point to do so, and would have responded sooner had I not been traveling. Part of my job is to write, but then to also curate the conversation. So I’m sorry I wasn’t here sooner, but it looks like a healthy conversation.

      Personally, I’m not afraid of what happens after I post. And I don’t see it as a failure on my part if readers spot holes, or make suggestions that strengthen or refute what I’m saying. I think that’s part of the new “process journalism” and I like it. It is also part of the trade-off that the Web entails, where the idea is publisher faster rather than spend weeks writing and re-writing until perfection.

      Also, I still wouldn’t expect each and everyone one of you to read all of these comments. Or vouch for each other.

      But this experience highlights another challenge: Conversation fragmentation. I have this great conversation here. And then there are folks discussing it over at the PBS Faceook page (www.facebook.com/pbs). Throw in Twitter, my FB profile, and digg, and there were several discussions about just this post. How do I keep up?

    • StickyKeys

      Fragmentation: definitely a challenge for anyone actively participating in the interactive aspect of the web as publishing medium.

      If you are the author of a piece and originator of a thread and if you are going to respond to comments, pick a spot to interact with your audience and try and stick to it – the site that originally published your piece would seem the appropriate place to participate in a discussion. If you have the energy to chase after other discussions of your work happening elsewhere around the web well, good for you – but resign yourself to fragmentation.

      Many sites allow you to post links in your thread responses – you can always link to places where you may have given pertinent answers/responses to audience questions/criticism and thereby avoid redundant cross-posting and cut-n-paste across multiple threads. A simple link to relevant information is helpful and efficient – spamming the same answer in multiple places is obnoxious (although I did that on FB & Here today – whoops).

    • The opportunity is that since moderating is hard it has a real value that cannot be easily duplicated. Consider if there were a conversation moderated by a public official, a local business leader, or a school principal. or moderated by a journalist a la Charlie Rose.

      That would mean give readers access to power. Access to power is something that lobbyists willingly pay for every day. Since every good conversation is by it’s nature unique, you would think newspaper visitors would come back again and again.

    • @StickyKeys and @MichaelJ

      Thanks for additional thoughts on moderation. I agree that it’s a big value add that journalists can provide. Yes, there are some great automating tools out there. But when we’ve talked to folks about what they’re looking for online, they definitely want help having not just conversations, but high-quality ones. When these conversations wander, to devolve into shouting matches, it turns off the broader community. So keeping them relevant, and productive, and thoughtful, is a positive contribution folks in a newsroom can make.

      And also, @StickyKeys, thanks for tips on how t to deal with fragmentation. I could probably do a whole ‘nother post on that issue alone.

    • Evelyn

      I am seldom to post a comment, but Bill Moyers discussion on health care was excellent. No American of any age should support the current health care bill. It is flawed beyond redemption.

      Nor do I want to see the issure dropped…instead, the President should wage the good fight against the insurance companies fight for medicare for all Americans

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