Should you read the comments? | A New Shade of Green | Sherry Listgarten | Mountain View Online |

Local Blogs

By Sherry Listgarten

Should you read the comments?

Uploaded: May 10, 2020

Comments are a big part of this online paper. The “Town Square” forum is featured prominently and the staff spends a good amount of time moderating the comments. For example, more than a quarter of the 52 comments on this recent article on face masks were moderated. (That number doesn’t include comments that were removed entirely.) The paper is investing a significant amount of time and space in these conversations. And yet many people I know don’t read them because they can get pretty unpleasant.

Publisher Bill Johnson acknowledges that despite the moderation many readers are put off by comments, estimating that about 60% of online viewers love the comments while about 40% avoid them. What is going on, why does it matter, should you read them, and can you be smarter about how you read (or write) them to avoid the worst bits?

The comments on these pages are often terrific, offering alternative perspectives, new information, or a humorous take on a difficult topic. You may hear from teachers about grading policies, from employees whose pay is being cut, from residents of neighborhoods undergoing a planning process, or from people who have lived in other parts of the country or world bringing relevant perspectives. Some readers have deep expertise in city or other matters, and Johnson says that some comments lead to revisions, corrections or additions to stories.

But reader comments don’t just help by polishing the facts or advocating a point of view. When neighbors discuss a difficult issue that we are collectively facing, it can strengthen our resolve to address it, help us ask better questions (as well as get some answers), and provide a measure of social comfort and reassurance that we are all in this together and that we will help each other. But that only works if the conversation is respectful. When online discussions deteriorate it becomes counterproductive. Here is one commenter’s remark about that: “What most bothers me about discussions like the threads above is the lack of respect for dissenting opinion.... Rather than being curious about why other people may not agree … their response is simply to call people they disagree with idiots, fools or make some other personal insult…. My facebook is so full of this stuff I can't even look at it anymore. People attacking each other instead of trying to understand each other. So much for civil discourse in our society.”

Johnson says the most common problem they encounter on Town Square are comments that denigrate other commenters. “It’s okay if you are talking about an issue, but not if you are talking about another poster,” he told me. Portions of comments that are not respectful of fellow commenters are removed. In practice, most posters understand where the line is and adhere to the rules. Occasionally a poster whose comment was edited or deleted will complain, Johnson said, and he might respond with an explanation and ask “What makes you think that this is an appropriate thing to say on a community platform?” Most of the time they appreciate the response, understand the issue, acknowledge that they probably got a little carried away, and adjust their approach. This exchange benefits both parties, Johnson says, because it builds trust and mutual understanding.

Another problem that moderators encounter has to do with accuracy. When the Palo Alto Online staff sees factually inaccurate information cited in the comments they will remove those portions. “We have a responsibility as a news organization to prevent dissemination of false stuff when we spot it.” Johnson cited a recent example in which a commenter referred to a widely discredited video of two physicians analyzing the coronavirus.

A third problem relates to commenters repetitively pushing an agenda, whether it is leaf blowers, the legitimacy of SFR zoning, home schooling, or nuclear energy. Blogger Diana Diamond has experienced this: “Oftentimes I feel the responders haven't even read my column, nor are they responding to the topic, but are off on their own trip.” Sometimes these two last problems -- inaccuracy and agendas -- go together, leading to repetitive peddling of dubious information. I have seen that to some degree with a badly outdated climate film on this blog.

Interestingly, the questionable comments tend to gravitate around certain topics. “Feature stories get fewer problematic comments. Crime stories bring out the worst in people,” reflects Johnson. “And now that we’ve removed the pay meter, we are getting some newer commenters who don’t seem to know the rules. It’s been more work lately to moderate because of the controversies and angst around the coronavirus crisis.”

But at the same time there seems to be a growing recognition of the value of productive conversation. I love the point this commenter makes at the start of his/her response to a recent guest opinion: “Thank you for starting this conversation and thinking aloud to the rest of us. It can take an awful lot of courage to do that. Thank you for making it clear that it is a conversation and not a pre-ordained opinion, and inviting our community to join in.” Respectful dissenting opinions help all of us to better understand an issue and peoples’ responses to it. As blogger Diana Diamond puts it: “Frequently people object to a posting simply because they disagree with a point of view. That doesn't warrant, in my mind, removing the comment. Different viewpoints are important.”

I have a few tips for reading and writing comments to make our online discussions more productive. I’d love to hear from you as well with your thoughts on making the most of the reader forum.

Tips for Reading Comments

1. You may be better off waiting a bit before reading comments, so you don’t see the disrespectful or inappropriate posts that the moderator edits or removes. Moderators often work in response to people reporting objectionable comments and that can take a little while.

2. Don’t put too much stock in the commenters’ names or neighborhoods, which are not verified and which some posters change frequently. A “resident of Stanford” may not in fact be from Stanford. Similarly, the +1 indicators are often gamed. Instead, focus on the content.

3. If you run across a nasty or provocative comment, try not to react. Someone’s just having one of those days or is intentionally provoking other readers. By not reacting, you can do your part to make the discussions productive. It can also help to “Report objectionable content”.

Tips for Writing Comments

1. Be honest, share (reliable) information when you have it, ask questions.

2. Don’t write to let off steam. If you are posting to get a reaction, make it a positive one. Most people don’t like to listen to people who are angry or snarky.

3. It’s fine to be anonymous. If it helps you to write more honestly, then it is even a plus. But it is not a license to be nasty. A colleague of mine used to write all his emails assuming that one day they might become public. His communications were respectful and thoughtful, and people loved working with him.

I really value the comments on this blog, and I see terrific comments on other stories as well. This is a thoughtful, knowledgeable community, and it shows. I hope this makes us more aware of the value and impact of our online discussions so we can continue to improve them and so more people will feel comfortable reading them.

Notes and References
1. Comments on blogs work a little bit differently than comments on regular stories, in that the blogger is able to establish guidelines and act as the primary moderator.

Current Climate Data (March/April 2020)
Global impacts, US impacts, CO2 metric, Climate dashboard (updated annually)

Comment Guidelines
I hope that your contributions will be an important part of this blog. To keep the discussion productive, please adhere to these guidelines or your comment may be moderated:
- Avoid disrespectful, disparaging, snide, angry, or ad hominem comments.
- Stay fact-based and refer to reputable sources.
- Stay on topic.
- In general, maintain this as a welcoming space for all readers.