In this case, NPR editors say the decision was really made for them before they decided to make the notion of “pulling the plug,” by organically moving the comments and interactions with the agency’s content to social media.
It’s a scenario being played out at media organizations, big and small, everywhere. A comment on a post on an organization’s Facebook page is often likely to be seen (and interacted with) more than the organization’s website. There are some people who clearly don’t even read the article, based on things they say and questions they ask in comments (that are answered in the actual story). But thanks to social media, good or bad, they have the opportunity to have their say, and take advantage of it, even when all they know is what the headline, not the story itself, tells them.
In NPR’s case, they say they worked up a count of commenters on npr.org in relation to the number of unique visitors and found that less than a tenth of 1% of visitors left a comment.
Does a decision to close comments, then, indicate that an organization doesn’t care about that tiny fraction? No.
But it’s more than a convenience issue:
NPR’s commenting system — which gets more expensive the more comments that are posted, and in some months has cost NPR twice what was budgeted — is serving a very, very small slice of its overall audience.
The other problem, besides cost, is the familiar problem NPR faced with their comment system:
The number of complaints to NPR about the current comment system has been growing—complaints that comments were censored by the outside moderators, and that commenters were behaving inappropriately and harassing other commenters.
The “censorship” issue is a tired complaint: just because you can leave a comment doesn’t necessarily mean you have carte blanc to say anything. Many sites do have some sort of comment policy, though most people surely never bother to read it. I see comments at my real job that contain any number of “community standards” violations that might range from profanity, vulgarity, hate speech and harassment, just to name a few. When an organization posts a comment policy and then enforces it, that’s not censorship, but then a troll, naturally, isn’t interested in hearing that argument.
And I often receive the “harassment” complaint from people who, when I go back and review the comment stream being reported, are just as actively harassing the person they claim is harassing them.
Essentially, it takes time and effort for an agency to step in and mitigate behavior people should know better than to engage in to begin with.
The move to social media commenting carries one big drawback.
There’s a nearly-unavoidable problem with moving the option to comment to social media only. Most news organizations don’t post every story on their website on their Facebook page. For one thing, it would be too many posts and Facebook already shows only a fraction of what you post (if any at all) to an organization’s fans when they sign on.
This means social media users have to pick up the slack themselves by posting the links on their walls, posting their comments, and hoping enough of their friends will interact with it so that more of their friends will actually see it in their newsfeeds. Those comments that get no responses slowly fade from most of your friends’ feeds, since Facebook’s algorithm seems to see that as a post “no one cares about.”
So as organizations try to optimize their social media pages, particularly Facebook, to make sure everything they post is getting some kind of reaction and inspiring conversation, there are times when they have to be selective to make sure what they post isn’t getting buried because Facebook deems it “unimportant” or “uninteresting.”
This is one of those situations where NPR is probably making the best decision given the circumstances, but a situation in which no decision they can make is ideal.
Do you comment on news stories on actual news sites or do you prefer to comment on social media instead?
Patrick is a Christian with more than 26 years experience in professional writing, producing and marketing. His professional background also includes social media, reporting for broadcast television and the web, directing, videography and photography. He enjoys getting to know people over coffee and spending time with his dog.