Jour­nal­ists show lack of in­ter­est in reader feed­back

The Washington Times Weekly - - Culture, Etc. - By Christo­pher Harper

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 charper@wash­ing­ton­ Twit­ter: @charper51.

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