North Dakota’s Bismarck Tribune announced to its online readers that it is implementing a new comment policy, one in which the majority of stories on its website won’t have comments as an option.
The change, the paper says, follows a problem of remarks that “have been in poor taste and nothing more than personal attacks on either a person or group.”
There are those who are immediately going to cry censorship, working under the very mistaken assumption that their first amendment rights are somehow at risk. (That isn’t the case, of course, because the newspaper’s website is not “public property” like a town square.)
The question is, should newspapers — or any other media for that matter — take such steps when comments get out of control?
Here’s the problem: we live in a society in which people sue at the drop of a hat. Unless a media outlet is willing to stop what it’s doing and check every individual comment that comes in, it can’t fairly moderate everything. And if they decide on their own to delete one particularly vile comment, then where is the line? What is then allowed to get through and what isn’t, and what are they saying by what they do allow to stay? More often than not, it seems, it’s left to the other readers to police their own commenting communities via “flagging” system. But even that isn’t perfect, and if a large segment of commenters are equally angry, snarky people, they’re not going to flag each other’s comments, they’re just going to try to make theirs sting a little more than the last one.
It isn’t just Bismark’s problem. Check out any newspaper anywhere that allows comments and you’ll see mean-spirited vitriol. Check out radio and television websites that post news and allow comments and you’ll find plenty of it there as well.
And don’t even get me started on Facebook and Twitter, where snarkyness is the order of the day, every day.
Is it better to just close the door on comments for everyone?
I don’t think so. I think it’s better to allow them for the people who are intelligent enough to behave like sensible people. I think it’s better to give people who might add perspective or constructive criticism to a report the opportunity to do so. And I think it’s better to stifle those who only want to cause trouble on a case-by-case basis.
We can’t expect everyone to believe the same way or treat others the same way. More’s the pity.
But we can at least allow people who’ll do the right thing that possibility. And we should.