My neighbor, former professional journalist, and continuing blogger David Newquist joins the discussion of what distinguishes journalism from mere online shouting. After discussing the central importance of facts and literary quality to journalism, Newquist says online comment sections are like graffiti on good reporting:
When a news story presentation allows for comments, the chain of responses produces a verbal smoke screen in which the facts are obscured, sometimes totally lost. Most of the comments do not refer to the facts. As linguistic scholars explain it, the language of comments gives us maps of the minds of the commenters. It deals with the prejudices, obsessions, and deviations of the commenters, seldom with the facts at issue. For many, those products of cognitive failure are the impression that is retained in their minds. More often than not, comment threads produce expressions of malice, which reduce the exchange into a malicious exercise. Students of how mass communication works explain that these exchanges are in large part a cause of the hateful political divide in our nation.
Savvy editors recognize that the good work of industrious, competent reporters is defaced by horribly written and specious commentary… [David Newquist, “What Is a Real Journalist?” Northern Valley Beacon, 2019.05.06].
I love interacting with my commenters and respect the opinions of enough of them to pull stats and rate blog posts based on how many comments they provoke. I learn a lot from my commenters, and I maintain that my commenters provide far more value than the mudslinging anonymi who bother to duckspeak to my conservative competition’s crony propaganda.
But I also recognize that some of the Dakota Free Press posts that draw the most comments do so because a few commenters are chasing red herrings down rabbit holes that lead to no additional understanding of the original story. I acknowledge that some commenters post messages not to inform the public further on the story at hand but to obscure the facts or denigrate, harass, and demoralize the author or other speakers, ill intent opposite the purpose of journalism.
I have blocked a handful of commenters for taking that ill intent too far. I occasionally delete comments that stray from the main purpose of discussion. Even commenters with whom I agree completely sometimes fall into this fault, going off on tangents about the latest Trump/Mueller/Pelosi news that may start with some abstract connection to the local topic at hand but which lead readers to forget South Dakota and reheat national media leftovers that don’t tell us much about the need for trees in Aberdeen parking lots, a hot mic at the next Rapid City Wingnuts meeting, or a Secretary of Education who isn’t a feckless political crony.
I will continue taking comments, I will continue taking measures to encourage better comments. Use your real names, speak as neighbors would face to face, stay on topic, and take Newquist’s admonition as a reminder that everyone who speaks publicly, from elected officials and professional journalists to bloggers and their commenters, has an obligation to lift up the community with honest, respectful, and enlightening discourse.