Are reader comments a “civic hazard”?

Last week, the New Haven Independent, an online-only publication in the city, closed the comment sections on all its articles. In an explanation posted to the site on February 7, Independent founder Paul Bass called for a “time out,” citing deteriorating civility and increasingly personal, offensive, harsh comments on the site’s articles. He claimed that negative comments left his editorial team exhausted and disillusioned, and questioned:

“Is this the long-awaited new dawn of democracy and accountability we thought we were helping to help spark in New Haven by launching the Independent in 2005? Or are we contributing to the reflexively cynical, hate-filled discourse that has polluted American civic life? Are we reviving the civic square? Or managing a sewer with toxic streams that demoralize anyone who dares to take part in government or citizen activism?”

The Independent had maintained a policy of reviewing all comments before posting them, reserving the right to edit out offensive language or refuse to post comments that would not contribute to a constructive conversation. This policy stood in contrast to that of the the New Haven Register, whose comment section allowed readers to post comments immediately, without review by the Register’s editorial board. Northeastern University professor Dan Kennedy, who is currently writing a book about the Independent, claims that the Register’s unedited comment section frequently contained racist, inflammatory posts by readers, drawing complaints from African-American readers. 

The apparent failure of both of these comment sections begs the question: are comment sections a “civic hazard,” to borrow Bass’ words?

A number of media theorists and critics wonder whether internet-based media are contributing to an ideological division in the way we consume news and information. Cass Sunstein, in particular, has argued that the profusion of left- and right-leaning blogs have created an environment that exposes readers to only that information which confirms their preexisting political beliefs — creating, in effect, a discursive echo chamber. While others disagree, many still question whether the rise of the internet marks the end of a public sphere in which citizens are forced to encounter and negotiate with a variety of opinions.

It would seem that sites like the Independent and the Register are remnants of that public sphere. Both news organizations provide general interest local reporting, creating a platform on which readers holding diverse political beliefs could interact. But to judge from offensive comments on both sites and the Independent’s decision to close its comment section, that public sphere is no longer an effective place for discussion. Can it be saved?

The Independent has considered a number of options to reform its comment section, including requiring readers to register with their real names, asking commenters to police themselves, and hosting events throughout New Haven to encourage face-to-face discussions. One option that seems counterproductive, however, is to permanently disable comments on the site, as Bass is considering. Yes, the discourse on the site had taken a turn away from civility. But by effectively editing the posts that did appear, the Independent provided a model of constructive conversation that readers could emulate if they wanted to participate in the discussion. It may have been a heavy burden for the Independent’s staffers, but nobody said democracy was easy.

This entry was posted in Local News, Themes and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to Are reader comments a “civic hazard”?

  1. Pingback: What’s the value in local news? A look at the New Haven Independent |

  2. Dilan says:

    I think that removing the comment section prevents the opportunity for interesting dialogue and alternative perspectives. One of the greatest advantages of having the new media is that it allows people to express their opinions on a larger platform and even offer the original author food for thought.

    To be fair, some people do take advantage of the comment section. After looking at Youtube recently, some of the comments I read below a video were simply horrid. However, by screening the comments and requiring commenters to make an ID that prevents people from hiding behind anonymity can help alleviate inappropriate publishing.

    The one qualm with this may be the fact that if comments are screened, this provides the editor the opportunity to only post comments that are supportive or may be in opposition to the original post, but poorly argued. This may not be the case for the Independent, but it is not inconceivable that other sites could do this.

  3. Sam says:

    I agree with Nate. There is a case to be made to tolerate all comments yet it can be frustrating if they do not add to the debate and instead are only aimed at offending a group of people. I think the solution of having people comment using their real names would be perfect. People gain a lot of courage when they can hide behind a veil of anonymity and I believe that this would help to elevate the debate on the sites. It can be argued that the comment section is our generation’s public square so to ban it I believe would be a detriment to the democratic process. Great post Jessica.

    • Olivia says:

      I agree with Sam, and I think that removing the anonymity that the Internet grants its users could effectively edit down a lot of the offensive posts that the Independent’s staffers are forced to sift through. Of course, this raises the question of how exactly one could do this – logging in via Facebook is one way to verify a user’s identity. I think by adding this one extra barrier to the freedom that posting allows, users might be more conscious of the words they indelibly extend to the Internet. Additionally, it would eliminate any discussion amongst the Independent’s staffers of where to draw the line when censoring posts. Is this a subjective experience, and could it lead to accusations of undemocratic actions?

  4. Nate says:

    While I agree that internet commenting is far too often used as a vehicle for people to say extremely offensive and/or stupid things, there’s a legitimate case to be made that maybe we should just accept that fact and not try to censor them, whether it’s by shutting down comments sections or heavily moderating them. If these newspapers really are parts of the public sphere, then why shouldn’t we hold free speech to be just as important online as it is anywhere else? Since we abhor but still permit hateful speech by groups like the WBC or KKK, we should consider applying the same standard to the proverbial “idiot with an internet connection.” I agree it seems like these users tend to outnumber sensible and articulate people online, but (hopefully) that’s only because they’re the most vocal. If we value the ‘marketplace of ideas,’ isn’t the better solution not to silence others, but to become more vocal ourselves?

  5. Paul Bass says:

    Thanks for your post. I agree with you. I especially like the line, “nobody said democracy was easy.”

  6. Amanda says:

    I also agree that completely disabling the Independent’s comment section would be the wrong move. It seems unfair to punish the individuals who were using the comment section for its intended purpose based on a few bad apples. Just as one might create a fake Facebook or Twitter account, it would be easy to register on the Independent under a different identity. Requiring names to be published with posts and enabling readers to flag inappropriate comments may be helpful, but perhaps the only way to truly monitor posts is with a human being serving as editor. It is clear that Bass and his editors are burnt out, but maybe monitoring comments on online news stories is simply becoming a part of being a journalist in the digital age.

  7. Dawn says:

    A solution suggested is indeed I think the best..If an individual is not willing to post their name, they wont be published..Simple. Discussion over. And I think comments should be restricted as to the number of comments any one person can make in a week or day or what have you..I get really tired of hearing the same drivel from the same people…

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>