I can’t imagine how people fed and clothed themselves before the Internet, let alone how they reported stories.
But I’m envious of one aspect of pre–digital age journalism: that moment when ink-stained wretches of yesteryear would behold their latest printed edition in the flickering torchlight and think, “Lo, I made this, and it is perfect.”
Sure, subsequent editions may have contained numerous letters to the editor, all offering some version of, “Hey, let me tell you all the ways in which that thing you made was incredibly imperfect.”
But nonetheless, the original story stood alone, like a monument — a self-contained physical object that, on your worst day, you could fish out of the filing cabinet and read, basking in the glow of your own journalistic accomplishment.
Or so I like to think.
These days, I find clicking on my own stories online to be more like the climax of Raiders of the Lost Ark, when the Nazis open the Ark of the Covenant.
“It’s beautiful!” I first exclaim, much as the French collaborator René Belloq — Indiana Jones’s evil archeology rival — shouts gleefully upon gazing into the awe-inspiring light that spews from within the gilded box.
But then, a sinister, ultra-low synthesizer drone swells as my eyes are drawn down to the audience comments that dangle off my beautiful story’s rear end like a trail of noxious exhaust.
The better angels of my nature — here personified by the eminent Dr. Jones himself — tell me what I should do: “Don’t look! Keep your eyes shut!”
But I lack the willpower. Like the awkward middle-schooler who can’t help but read what awful things his peers are saying about him online, I devour the comments, despite the great suffering they cause me (or, because they cause suffering, if Freud’s theory of repetition compulsion is to be believed).
Just as God punishes the three bad cats of Raiders for peering into the ark, I too am killed by my curiosity.
The worst are the comments that accurately point out a real flaw in my story — a wrong fact, a writing or style error, an indication of bias, an overlooked bit of context. I know I should be appreciative, but reading these tends to make my head shrivel and collapse, like what happens to the Nazi Colonel Dietrich.
Then there are the critical comments that are less valid but still sting, such as partisan knee-jerks, ad hominems and troll attacks. Looking at these tends to melt my face right off my skull, like what happens to the Gestapo interrogator Major Toht (the creepy guy with the black hat).
Which comments make my head straight-up explode, like Belloq’s? The ones that would’ve never been posted if the commenter had simply read or paid attention to my story all the way through. KABOOM.
It’s tempting for those in our profession to say, “The first rule of digital journalism is you do not read the comments. The second rule is you do not read the comments.” (Forgive me for mixing my movie metaphors, Fight Club fans.)
But Mark Memmott, a veteran ink-stained wretch at USA Today who now serves as the standards & practices editor for NPR, disagrees.
“You need to be aware of what people are saying about your stories,” Memmott told me.
And it can’t stop at awareness. Reporters must — when called for — reply to commenters, he said, speaking from the extensive experience of having co-hosted NPR’s The Two-Way news blog until his recent promotion.
“Go in and add some information, thank them for finding mistakes, thank them for adding information on their own,” Memmott said. “You want to have a dialogue with them.”
So how can reporters work through the face-melting, skull-imploding/exploding hazards of comment threads long enough to have a constructive dialogue with the audience?
Based on my own experience, as well as interviews with Memmott and other experts, I’ll now offer some best practices that — if observed — will hopefully keep everyone’s heads intact, including mine.
- Embrace an informal tone
- Always clearly identify yourself
- Pick your battles
- Let the reporting speak for itself
- Stand up for your work, but don’t be defensive
- Try not to get into an extended back-and-forth with one person
- Question whether the comment threads are the best place to do what you’re doing
- Get a better commenting system
1. Embrace an informal tone
Not too long ago, news managers would tell reporters, “Don’t say anything in social media that you wouldn’t say in your story.” I recall once raising limited objections to that rule and literally being shouted down by more senior journalists in the room (and I’m no shrinking violet).
It is, of course, not that simple, as is now widely acknowledged by standards enforcers like Memmott. “I have perpetual employment in this position, because there are no lines in many cases — they’re all gray, and we can discuss them forever,” he said.
Time and again, I have seen reporters (typically with legacy media, like newspapers) drop into comment sections and address their audience in the same stilted and impersonal tone of their articles. Boo.
“There are ways of saying things on social media that are a little different than what we do on the air that are probably going to be fine,” Memmott said. “A little conversational, a little more — sometimes — attitude, a little more flip.”
Here’s how I think about it.
Your article is the speech you give from the podium. Even if the copy is conversational and breezy, it still has that teleprompter formality. Every word is subject to heightened scrutiny because everyone is listening and no one can talk back.
But when the speech is over, you head down into the audience where you have one-on-one interactions with people, while a few others around you listen in. In that setting, you don’t talk the way you would from the podium; if you did, it would be weird.
Your interactions via social media — comment sections included — should sound like the version of you that’s out in the house, not up on the stage (see examples to come).
However, since people can’t quite see who you are on the Internet like they can in a theater, it’s important to . . .
2. Always clearly identify yourself
This one is already enshrined in many news organizations’ policies. If you’re going to comment on your own stories, you have to disclose, up front, that you are the author of that particular news item.
I used to think it was enough that I commented under my own real name, which matches the byline. But one time, I got into a back-and-forth on one of my NPR stories with “Tom Hanks,” a serial NPR.org commenter (he says that’s his real name, by the way). Hanks didn’t realize I was the author of the piece, and he got pretty upset when he realized I was.
“There are so many nicknames on this forum that people barely read them, so it’s important for you to identify your role,” he said, and he was right.
If you go in and start defending your story without clearly identifying yourself, it could look as though you’re trying to covertly influence the chatter about you — like a politician who has plants in the crowd to cheer at every applause line.
So now, I start my every interaction in the comment threads with some version of, “Hey, I’m the guy who wrote this story…”
Of course, you’re never going to please everyone. One time, “Neo_Liberal,” another NPR.org regular, replied to my “I’m the guy who wrote the story” disclosure like so: “I hope you don’t expect that to intimidate me. Quite frankly, you did a lousy job of it.”
Sigh. This leads me to . . .
3. Pick your battles
Whenever I have a piece on a national outlet, like All Things Considered or Marketplace, I plan to surrender the ensuing 48 hours of my life to the task of replying to every comment that necessitates factual clarification or that either criticizes or praises the way in which I reported the story (guess which of those is typically most abundant).
I know I should be more selective about what I spend my time replying to, but I just can’t help myself. Those comments will be attached to my story forever; I can’t just leave them unaddressed! Despite knowing better, I sacrifice my time and sanity on the altar of digital permanence.
In May, I had a story on Morning Edition about the then-new documentary Farmland, a film that profiles six young farmers and presents their points of view on the agricultural controversies of the day, such as animal cruelty and genetically modified seeds.
I tried to present the film on its own terms, but I also pointed out that the movie was funded entirely by a consortium of big agribusinesses and farm bureaus, and I included a damning quote from food writer Michael Pollan in which he accused Big Ag of trying to put a sympathetic face on a food system that he argues is corrupt and toxic.
Despite my best efforts at balance, commenter “ben balz” dismissed my story as a “pay-for-play puff piece” and NPR as a “corporate shill.”
Of course, I just had to reply, “[I]f you think it’s a pay-for-play puff piece, I don’t think you actually paid attention.”
As you can imagine, that had the immediate effect of quelling all criticism and refocusing attention away from me, the reporter, and toward the content of the story, where it belongs. (No it didn’t.)
“Your corporate sponsors (underwriters) pay your salary in part,” replied “Ron Goodman.” “How many of the big Agri-business companies contribute to NPR?”
I then spent irretrievable hours of my life explaining the Chinese wall between the business and news departments, arguing that public media’s special blend of donor dollars, tax dollars and corporate dollars is probably the least corruptible way of funding a news organization that anyone has devised, blah blah blah.
That was dumb of me. The story was self-evidently not a puff piece, and I should have never replied in the first place. All I did was pull the conversation down a rabbit hole that changed no minds and served only my own ego.
I should have remembered to . . .
4. Let the reporting speak for itself
“I tend to say to people, ‘Let the reporting speak for itself,’” said Melody Joy Kramer, NPR’s luminously talented and forward-thinking digital strategist. “I don’t feel like, if you’ve done a good job reporting, you should need to defend your reporting.”
Kramer told me she’s noticed and admired my approach with commenters (she knows who I am, squee!) but had no shortage of critiques for me. Obviously, if someone as relentlessly pro-engagement as Kramer tells me that sometimes I should just shut up and leave it alone, I’ll listen.
After all, not every commenter wants to engage.
“I don’t know that people who comment on articles [necessarily] view their commenting as being part of a dialogue,” she said. “I think they just want to state their thought, put it out there, and I’m guessing that most of those people do not return to those threads. ”
Indeed, Mr. “balz” from the aforementioned example never replied after I rejected his accusation of piece puffery. His was merely a drive-by comment, not worthy of my time or attention.
The more complicated situations are those in which the reporting does not entirely speak for itself.
Obviously, when commenters point out a mistake in your story, you want to thank them and post the correction, posthaste. However, valid criticisms I get in comments more often are complaints about omission.
In July, I reported on Morning Edition about a gay music teacher at a Catholic school in my city of Macon, Georgia, who lost his job after administrators learned he planned to marry his longtime boyfriend in a state that would allow it.
There were many legal angles to explore, but I focused on the most novel one: The teacher’s lawyer argues that the federal law against gender discrimination also implicitly bans discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation (a fringe theory, though one that is growing in popularity).
Before the story even aired, people took to the comment threads in droves to complain that I hadn’t given sufficient attention to the religious-liberty angle. While I did mention the issue broadly, I did not point out that a 2012 Supreme Court decision arguably exempts religious schools from federal anti-discrimination law.
I replied to each commenter, explaining how a radio magazine show is a pretty constrained medium — we have to make tough decisions about what we include or leave out for time — and why I thought the gender angle was more newsworthy than the religious one. That argument didn’t go over well.
“[O]bviously the chief defense by the religious school is going to be religious freedom,” responded commenter “frank you.” “[S]orry you think our liberties are sooooo boooooring.”
“Frank” and I could have argued all day about whether the issue merited greater inclusion in my radio piece (and we did argue all day, because I violated best practices #5 and #6, see below), but I had no excuse for not acknowledging that recent Supreme Court precedent in my text story online, where space was not an issue.
While NPR’s editorial process is not, in my experience, set up to draw bonus online content from outside reporters like me (NPR editors typically adapt the text piece from the radio script we file, unlike Marketplace, which asks reporters to file webified copy along with their script and sound), we can and should push for the inclusion of extra stuff that we think is important. At least, so says NPR’s Memmott.
“In talking with the editor who’s handling it here, you make clear you’ve got this other available information that might be an interesting build-out on the website,” he said. “Then the discussion becomes, ‘Do we want it, and are we gonna kick you a few extra bucks to go to that extra work?’ And I think that if you make a strong case, we might say, ‘Yeah.’”
I’m heartened by Memmott’s attitude. In order to let our reporting speak for itself, we have to make sure that it actually does, on one platform or another.
5. Stand up for your work, but don’t be defensive
No amount of preparation or thoroughness will fully immunize you from criticism. This is the social Internet we’re talking about — the most efficient venue for the venting of generalized anger since the pillory.
So when the medieval mob starts hurling its rotten produce, what should you do? “Don’t be defensive,” Memmott said. “Be prepared to defend your reporting, if need be.”
I don’t think those two recommendations are as contradictory as they seem.
No doubt this is a hard needle to thread, but just as it’s possible to communicate simply without being simplistic, surely there’s a way to stand up for yourself and your news organization without looking like Shakespeare’s lady who doth protest too much, methinks.
In my opinion, public broadcasting’s unique political vulnerabilities require us to speak up for ourselves in situations where commercial news organizations could simply shrug off haters or even fan divisive flames in order to consolidate support among a target demographic.
Here’s a time when I think I got it right. In April, I reported on All Things Considered that a new federal regulatory crackdown on elephant ivory imports could potentially ensnare musicians who are just trying to pass through customs with their antique instruments.
Several commenters accused me of scaremongering for clicks and/or gratuitously rousing rabble against the Obama administration for political reasons.
“I look to NPR to spread truth, this article is very alarming in that it feels like it’s feeding a propaganda machine,” wrote “Kefoust.”
“Silicon28” dismissed the thrust of my story as a “pseudo-issue” and a “tempest in a teapot.” “I simply have major trouble believing that classical (and antique) instruments would not be exempted from such a policy,” she/he wrote.
Here’s how I responded.
Hi, I’m the guy who did this story. Hopefully by reading it all the way through and by checking out the other comments here, you are now aware that this is an actual issue. The most important thing in the world? Far from it. But it’s a really good example of how tricky it is to write regulations designed to enforce prohibitions on anything. That’s what I liked about the story. Did I do it for page views? In a way, sure. I’m not serving anyone if I don’t get their attention.
“Silicon28” came back with a kind and thoughtful response.
“Adam: My apologies if the above comment was insensitive. I still think my comment had a point — in that antique instruments make up such a small amount of the illegal ivory trade, it truly is hard to fathom that being an ‘issue,’” she/he wrote.
“Sometimes we commenters have issues that might sound pointed towards writers when in fact they are simply a reaction to the overall ‘issues’ of news organizations still finding their way into the digital world,” she/he continued. “I actually appreciate and am a fan of your work in Georgia.”
The interaction stuck in my mind. Two months later, when the Budapest Festival Orchestra had seven antique bows with ivory tips (a common possession among elite string players) seized upon trying to enter the U.S., I returned to the thread and referred silicon28 to the link.
“Wow . . . thanks for this update,” she/he replied, giving me momentary gratification that evaporated upon further reading. “That article actually reads like an ‘invented’ violation in order to receive a fine.” FACEPALM.
Oh well. All in all, I’d call that pretty successful audience interaction.
Sherrie Marshall, executive editor of The Telegraph newspaper in my town of Macon, said it best when I asked her thoughts on the subject:
“When I am able to talk to a person who has a criticism — ‘I don’t like the headline on the paper, I don’t like what you do in this section, I don’t like that you cover this’ — if you make that human connection, it invariably creates a bond that dials people back a little bit, and they have a newfound either respect for what you do or understanding of what you do,” Marshall said.
Memmott at NPR has similar experiences reaching out to unhappy customers. “They may still disagree, but often that just cools the waters,” he said.
I figure being on the Internet is like driving a car, where you’re more likely to flip somebody the bird because you’re encased in a couple tons of rapidly moving metal, making it unlikely that you’ll have to deal with the consequences of your social interactions. If you end up parking at the same grocery store as the other guy, you’ll probably find a way to play nice in the checkout line.
Of course, sometimes the other guy gets out of his car with a Glock. That, among other reasons, is why it’s important to . . .
6. Try not to get into an extended back-and-forth with one person
On my aforementioned article about the Catholic school teacher who lost his job after announcing his engagement to another man, good ol’ Neo_Liberal commented, “The issue isn’t the marriage. The issue is the public acknowledgement of his orientation that destroyed his credibility to serve as a minister. That is all that is required for him to be fired . . . according to the Constituion. [sic]”
“This entire article is nonsense over a non-issue,” she/he wrote.
What ensued were 13 — 13! — rounds of reply and counter-reply in which Neo_Liberal and I argued over whether the Supreme Court has settled the question of who counts as a “minister” at a religious organization and is therefore not protected by workplace anti-discrimination law.
I was not arguing that the teacher in my story definitely does or does not count as a minister in the court’s eyes. My only contention was that the teacher has a strong enough case to merit inclusion in a news story. Neo_Liberal saw it differently, and things got a little ugly.
Looking back on the thread, I said everything I needed to say in the first couple replies. All of my arguments are there. It was nothing but pride and bravado that kept me coming back for round after round, refusing to let my opponent have the last word. (Protip: If you ever come to think of a member of your audience as an “opponent,” you’re doing journalism wrong.)
“I’m not sure that responding to individual people — back and forth, back and forth, back and forth — is a worthy time investment,” Kramer said. “[You] have to go back out and report on a different story. We have to, kind of, move forward.”
Indeed, my stubbornness in this particular case did nothing but rob my audience of time I could have spent reporting something else for them.
“If [reporters are] spending their time in our comment section, they’re not developing sources, they’re not engaging with the wider public,” Kramer said. “It’s a very small percentage of people who comment, and I would rather see the dialogue take place in a place that allows more people to participate.”
Hmm, what type of place might that be?
7. Question whether the comment threads are the best place to do what you’re doing
This is Kramer’s big bugaboo.
“I’m not sure whether the comment section gets you the most bang for your buck,” she said, arguing that other social media platforms allow “more people to enter the space.”
As an example, Kramer points to NPR Media Correspondent David Folkenflik’s coverage of the ouster of New York Times editor Jill Abramson in May.
“He, you know, did a piece for ATC, did a piece for newscast, and then found out all of this additional information that would have waited until the next morning when he reported again on air, and he put it out on Twitter,” she said.
“Had [Folkenflik] situated himself in the comment thread of the reported piece that we put online, he wouldn’t have had the conversation that he did,” Kramer said.
Indeed, while comment threads are public, they’re not particularly visible. You have to click into the original story and scroll all the way down to find them. And if the comment thread is loooooooong, contributions from the author can be easily lost. Imagine if NPR’s Joel Rose had said something important in the epic 2,761-comment thread on his September piece about the “men’s rights” movement — actually, for all I know, he did, and I just can’t find it.
To make matters worse, it’s either difficult or impossible to share individual comments via other social media, depending on which commenting system you’re faced with.
Comment threads are public in the same way that campus bulletin boards are public — no matter how important your announcement is, it’s going to be buried between “Joe’s Guitar Lessons” and “Come Watch ‘The Big Lebowski’ on the Quad!”
A notable exception to this rule would be niche or local publications that attract fewer comments. The threads on our local paper in Macon rarely go beyond a couple dozen comments and are amazingly widely read, perhaps because they’re easier to consume.
Twitter, on the other hand, is like a giant lecture hall where every time you say something that other people find interesting, your lectern grows taller and your mic gets louder. But it’s not Kramer’s gold standard.
“I think Reddit is probably the best platform that has really, really highly engaged, smart questions and comments,” she said.
Kramer is right, of course, that Reddit, Twitter, Facebook and the like are probably better venues for audience engagement. But there’s a key difference between conversations about my story that occur on social media, and those that occur in the comment threads on my story. The latter are ON MY FREAKING STORY, appearing as a permanent addendum to anything I write.
She feels my pain. “I wonder if there’s a way to draw in some of that [social media] conversation to the page itself, so that the dialogue that’s happening elsewhere can be curated on the page where the story lives,” Kramer said.
Ah ha. So, the ultimate solution may be to . . .
8. Get a better commenting system
Thankfully, Brian Brennan is going to help us all do just that. The Mozilla software engineer is part of a team working on a Knight Foundation–funded project involving Mozilla, The New York Times and The Washington Post to, in Knight’s words, turn “comments into community.” (Disclosure: My job is also funded by Knight.)
“The idea is to create tools to be able to compose a new platform for user-generated content,” Brennan said — a platform that would allow news organizations to more easily draw together stuff from various social media and seamlessly integrate it into a story, all while exercising curatorial judgment. “New York Times has a bunch of auto-moderation stuff that they’ve written that’s gonna be open-sourced as part of this project.”
“I’m a person who does, actually, tend to read the comments,” Brennan said. “And I do like when the authors get engaged with comments that are valuable, . . . not the ones that are just stupid, throw-away noise.”
Helping news sites easily liberate those high-value interactions from the “noise” and bring them to the top is something Brennan hopes to do. He also hopes to liberate news organizations from Disqus, the third-party commenting platform used by NPR.org and almost everybody else these days (including Current).
“Disqus owns your data, so that’s not great,” he said. “For people like The New York Times, they would probably want to be able to own and control their own data.”
I also notice that Disqus — at least in how it functions with the news sites that use it — tends to be kind of flakey. You’ll post a comment and it will appear and disappear, seemingly at random. NPR.org commenters often believe this is evidence of heavy-handed moderation, when in fact it’s just the software being weird. This needlessly engenders resentment among a certain, highly vocal set.
Another big item on Brennan’s to-do list is enabling “cross-site reputation.” Many sites already use rating systems that give more prominent placement to individual comments or commenters, or bestow a special status on trusted users that allows them to skip layers of moderation. But that status might not follow you as you jump from site to site.
“Like, I’m a proven commenter that makes good comments on NPR, so that reputation should, sort of, go with me to other places that trust NPR,” he said.
This is really important, I think, because reputation can be the antidote to the poison coursing through the veins of comment threads everywhere — anonymity. “Normally pleasant people act a lot differently when they can just make comments unhindered, not attached to any sort of reputation they have,” Brennan said. And how.
“Building some sort of cross-site transferrable reputation layer, or leveraging things like Facebook [which some sites use to force commenters to identify themselves] — getting the identity layer right is important to me,” he said. “I think that’s like what my big engineering challenge will be as we’re building this, is doing that in a way that is usable.”
This Mozilla/NYT/WaPo project got underway in September and is proceeding on a two-year timetable. The tools it yields will be free and open-source.
So, I say to Brennan, et al — excelsior! The fates of all digital journalists are in your hands. Now, the rest of us have to get down to the very meta business of commenting on this article about commenting on articles.