Thursday’s action by Advance Local news websites, including AL.com, to eliminate readers’ ability to post comments beneath site stories was so jaw dropping that it reminded me of Playboy magazine’s decision to eliminate fully nude photos of women. Take what was once a cornerstone of your brand and business model and throw it away.
How well I remember, when I worked at AL.com in the 2000s, the emphasis on posting stories that would generate comments and other forms of reader “engagement.” Reporters were required to engage in a certain number of daily interactions with posters. This really wasn’t a bad thing, as it offered new and valuable chances for direct public feedback, a wider diversity of voices engaged in civic conversation, and even an occasional story tip. But then the lofty ideals got rained on by reality and washed away into a heap of mud and muck.
Website commentary deteriorated into a cesspool of misinformation, viciousness, physical threats, racism, misogyny and other forms of harm and ugliness that made me think some humans should not be allowed to reproduce. Efforts to moderate – meaning to remove comments that violated user agreements – were too inadequate to keep up with the volume of problems. Some Advance employees complained, but engagement was the priority of the corporate office.
- Some commenters have created a “toxic atmosphere” by engaging in “personal attacks and other undesirable behavior.” The influence of this factor is seen in Advance’s decision to also remove all comments from previously published stories.
- Only a “tiny fraction” of website visitors actually post comments. NJ.com reported its fraction as 0.03 percent. Cleveland.com reported 0.0005 percent, and so did AL.com – during football season.
- Few registered users read the comments, which Advance attributed partly to the negativity of comment threads. NJ.com estimated 2 percent of its audience does so.
- More and more commenters prefer social media as the best forum, especially Facebook.
- The time and money spent on website moderation could be better used for news gathering. Advance used a combination of human moderators and algorithms. It employed an outside moderating company and I suspect Advance paid a lot of money for that company to serve an ever-dwindling piece of the chain’s websites. It likely didn’t make any financial sense anymore.
Advance is not alone in facing these issues or in trying to fight the problem with different moderation tactics such as algorithms, muting, flagging and up/down voting. And it’s not alone in making the ultimate decision that it did. A few notable others include the Buffalo News (2010), the Miami Herald (2013), Reuters (2014), the Chicago Sun-Times (2014), CNN (2014), NPR (2016) and the Atlantic (2018). All of these sought to steer reader comments to social media channels or required a social media channel log-in for site access.
The crucial difference with this new approach: the loss of poster anonymity. Anonymity allows a user with vital but sensitive information to share it without repercussions. More likely, though, anonymity brings out a poster’s inner troll. One 2019 study showed that anonymous commenters not only were more likely to post uncivil statements than named commenters were, but also were less likely to show any of the defined traits of quality dialogue.
The negativity allowed by anonymity and encouraged by an inflammatory culture has consequences. Research published in 2015 concluded that readers’ exposure to prejudiced comments caused them to post more prejudiced comments of their own and increased their negative attitudes toward the targeted group. A 2017 study co-authored by my UA department colleague Chris Roberts, as well as a study in 2019, showed that uncivil comment streams tainted reader perceptions of the credibility of the news organization itself.
Online negativity also affects the journalists who create the original stories. It is common for them (and for the subjects of stories) to vow, “I don’t read the comments.” It’s a matter of self-well-being. Sometimes the impact of the most extreme online anger is highly alarming. Read, for instance, this powerful 2018 personal commentary by Alecia Archibald, wife of AL.com columnist John Archibald. Social media in the wake of Advance’s announcement made it clear that many of Advance’s journalists welcomed the end of site comments. They are not alone in the industry in their disdain.
Still, for all the horrors, news organizations carry an ethical obligation to provide avenues for citizens to talk to journalists. That’s why Advance and other outlets point to other options, such as email. Cleveland.com’s editor communicates with registered users by text message. But ethical practices and the community service mission demand places for public discussion as well, and news outlets’ social media platforms are increasingly becoming those forums. The funny thing is, though, these days some social media commenters, even with names attached, can act just as vilely as those anonymous posters in their basements.
By the way, about a year later Playboy changed its mind. I don’t think Advance Local will.
Tom Arenberg is an instructor of news media at the University of Alabama. He worked for The Birmingham News and the Alabama Media Group for 30 years. He published this commentary originally as a post on his blog, The Arenblog. About News is a BirminghamWatch feature that publishes commentary by those who teach the craft and think about the values and performance of today’s journalism, a civic flashpoint. BirminghamWatch shares these articles on Facebook and Twitter and invites readers to join the conversation about their news in those forums.