October 18, 2013

Magazine decides online comments not welcome

As media outlets examine the value of commentary on their Web pages, Popular Science gives it the boot.

By Kendall Helblig
McClatchy Washington Bureau

No offense, Popular Science says, but it doesn’t want to hear what you have to say. At least not on its Web page.

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Online commentary is still a work in progress, as media outlets find that the discourse can range from informed discussion to diatribes ruled by spammers and incivility.


The science magazine’s online edition recently told readers that comments could be “bad for science.” Consequently, it was shutting them off.

The decision is one of many measures that online publications have taken to combat a growing problem: As news has become increasingly digital and discourse often is given over to commenters, spammers and trolls have diminished the value of these discussions.

“We’d like to believe that truth wins out over false and erroneous claims,” Naomi Oreskes, a Harvard University professor of the history of science, said in an email.

“But we live in a world where that is not necessarily the case. The Internet has become a forum for the spread of disinformation.”

Sites have responded with solutions that range from moderate to extreme – from embedding comments in stories to limiting or disabling them. A study out last week from a division of the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers found a relatively even split between sites that moderate comments before publication and those that review them afterward.


Of the 104 news organizations that participated – from 63 countries – seven didn’t allow comments at all. That was largely because of the resources required – both financial and time – to permit them, the association said.

The organizations surveyed generally split into two camps: those that embrace comments and those that see them as a “necessary evil.”

As with other problems the online community faces, anonymity often gets the blame. A key finding from the online-comment report was that anonymity is “a divisive issue, with no consensus.”

“There are zero consequences” for commenters, explained Gayle Falkenthal, a veteran journalist who’s the president of a communications consulting firm in San Diego.

Falkenthal pointed out that before the Internet, anonymity wasn’t an option. Readers had to send in comments with names and addresses attached. An anonymous letter wasn’t likely to make it into the next “Letters to the Editor.”

“Why in the world did the same principles that have been used in newspapers for decades not bleed over into news publications online?” Falkenthal asked.

Jillian York of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit international digital rights group, championed the value of online anonymity, but she also said Popular Science had made a good call.

“I do think shutting down comments entirely is a better decision than requiring names,” York said. She said requiring names would be dangerous and ineffective. Allowing anonymity protects people with valuable insight who, because of their circumstances, can contribute only anonymously, she said, and it’s hard to prevent people from using fake names.

Falkenthal said journalists had a responsibility to make sure the discourse was on target and didn’t descend to vicious levels.

“It’s hard to know when it will cross the line,” Falkenthal said.

Most popular social media sites have at least some form of monitoring system for comments.

Facebook, for example, relies mostly on users to report activity that violates the user agreement. YouTube recently announced a plan to organize comments so that the most relevant – not just the newest –float to the top. Comments also will be linked with users’ Google Plus accounts, chipping away some of the anonymity.


At The New York Times, 13 professional journalists work full time as in-house moderators, reading and approving almost all submitted comments. For most articles, readers are required to have New York Times accounts to submit a comment, said Bassey Etim, the community manager for The New York Times, who oversees the moderators.

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