Editorial: A new future for online commenting

There was a time when newspapers and other media outlets were strongly encouraged to provide online readers with as many avenues as possible to leave comments. Message boards are the future, we were told, and you should make it as easy as possible for people to start a dialogue on your website.

Media outlets have since dismantled message boards and implemented safeguards in an effort to eliminate anonymous commenting and elevate the level of discourse on their sites.

These measures have produced mixed results. Fewer readers are commenting, so less time is spent moderating online discussions. Unfortunately, this doesn’t necessarily translate to more accountability on the part of the individuals who are still commenting.

This week’s cover story about one man’s fight to clear his name after it was hijacked by commenters on a local news site is important. In addition to wrapping up a slightly sinister local mystery, it shines a spotlight on an issue all digital media outlets must cope with. And it shows readers there can be legal recourse against individuals who might see fit to damage someone’s reputation.

Cyberbullying is a term heard often in schools, where students are repeatedly warned of the dangers of such behavior. But what sort of support is provided for adults who are similarly victimized?

This type of scenario is a major reason online commenting will continue to fade from the media landscape. The Chicago Sun-Times, The Week, and, most recently, NPR, are among the major outlets to eliminate commenting altogether from their sites.

In a piece published by Nieman Journalism Lab last September, Ben Frumin, editor-in-chief of The Week framed the issue well.

“If I was painting a picture of a site we were gonna have,” he wrote, “and then at the end I said, ‘Oh, by the way, at the bottom of all our articles we’re going to prominently let any pseudonymous avatar do and say whatever they want with no moderation’ — if there was no convention of Internet commenting, if it wasn’t this thing that was accepted, you would think that was a crazy idea.”

Our editorial board has recently discussed the possibility of eliminating comments on our websites, allowing community discussion to occur solely on our social media platforms.

That’s where most of the dialogue is happening, anyway. And it’s also where the taxing responsibility of comment moderation doesn’t fall solely on a newsroom staff that could better serve readers by reporting the news.