- - Wednesday, October 23, 2013



Here’s a dirty little secret many journalists don’t want you to know, but you probably realize it already. Most of them couldn’t care less what you say about their reports in your comments online.

A study published last year in the Newspaper Research Journal estimated only about one-third of 647 reporters in the survey actually read comments about their stories, with small-town journalists more likely to do so than their big-city counterparts.

I tried recently to comment about a column on The New York Times‘ website, but I found I could not do so. I sent an email to Public Editor Margaret Sullivan about the issue and received a column she wrote last year.

“One of the topics that receives the most questions and comments to the public editor is online commenting itself,” she said.

It appears The New York Times allows comments on only 17 articles each day out of dozens posted on the website, with a staff to review the submissions. The moderators reject posts for being “inflammatory,” including material considered off topic, name-calling, profanity and spam advertising.

I think the policy is wrong. I can understand why those seeking to moderate don’t like those who inflame, but what may inflame the moderators may be good for discussion. What one person may consider off topic may be another way of looking at an issue. Name-calling? I certainly heard a lot of name-calling by politicians during the partial government shutdown. I wish profanity offended people, but it is part of American culture. Spam. Almost everyone ignores it, and most good computer programs discard it. Therefore, it seems to me The New York Times‘ policy may limit freedom of speech rather than promote it.

Policies vary for discussion boards. The Washington Times, for example, allows posts with a username — as do most other outlets — as long as the individual registers for an online account. The Wall Street Journal, however, requires the use of actual names.

Some outlets, such as Popular Science, have shut down the comments section entirely. The magazine made the decision last month, alleging that political commentary had overcome scientific evaluation.

“Everything, from evolution to the origins of climate change, is mistakenly up for grabs again,” wrote Suzanne LaBarre, the online content director for the magazine. “[B]ecause comments sections tend to be a grotesque reflection of the media culture.”

Grotesque? Science has changed throughout the centuries through vigorous debate. Remember how the Earth used to be the center of the universe?

It should be noted that just before the announcement the magazine published a story, “Watching Fox News Increases Distrust in Climate Science.” Should the editors be surprised that that story incurred the wrath of nearly 100 people, far more than the usual number of comments?

Here’s my view. A relationship should exist between the writer and the reader. I try to read every post about my column — as a check on my analysis and facts and out of respect for the reader. I also try to engage in conversations with those who agree with me and those who don’t. I would suggest more journalists do the same.

I also have found many discussion boards have become self-censoring. Sometimes the responses can be rough. But unless the comment is incredibly offensive, moderators should not reject comments because the discussants don’t follow the Marquess of Queensberry rules.

Public debate can be messy, but it is essential in any representative democracy. That debate may include ideas and words one may not agree with. But should some moderator delete unpopular ideas and words? That’s what I call censorship.

Christopher Harper is a professor at Temple University. He worked for more than 20 years at The Associated Press, Newsweek, ABC News and “20/20.” He can be contacted at [email protected] Twitter: @charper51.

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