Wednesday, June 13, 2007

The Medium is the Message

I started the conversation about the new trend, allowing readers to comment on news stories on newspaper websites (rendering them more like blogs than anything) in the comments thread from yesterday and Brian picked it up, so I’m going to elaborate on it. It’s something I’ve thought about doing, but in part didn’t want to because, well, of the person it means dragging into this.

Brian rightly mentions that the ability to comment is part of the appeal of talk radio and the internet… I think he’ll forgive me if I agree with the former and partially dispute the latter. Not everything on the internet allows for the capability of interaction, nor should it. Most websites don’t. Hell, there are places that sell services that make it harder to actually contact someone than to resolve the inquest into Diana’s death.

I’ve been thinking about this for a while, and had misgivings that have finally given way to full-blown criticisms. Of course, just when I decide to delve into it is when I’m going, what was that news article that really ticked me off when I looked through the comment trail again?

Now, one of the reasons these commenting systems differ from radio is that radio screens callers, or worst-case scenario if a fruitloop gets through is that they cut them off. Rightly so. It keeps the discussion at a certain level of intelligence. That is one of the great risks of forums and blogs: People can abuse the system in order to post inappropriate comments that are personal attacks, irrelevant to the discussion, or to post advertisements. These are things that don’t happen on radio.

For example, let me just stick with one online news source, to compare them against themselves. Why is it possible to comment on an article about a water treatment plant and to chime in on Prince Harry’s reflections on his late mother, but not possible to comment on the latest update in the search for Madeleine McCann. Could it be that whoever runs the newspaper’s website understands the potential for hurtful, biting commentary in the comment trails and wants to spare the McCann’s? The article about Harry and the article about the McCann’s are in the same section of the newspaper, so what basis are they using to decide where free speech is welcome, and where it is not?

I’ve remembered the article that really turned the tide for me, about an elected SNP member whose father was an SS officer. The comment trail here and elsewhere run the risk of descending to personal attack and into areas of irrelevance. (This becomes more apparent if you read some of the other articles on the SNP victory, where the story of Stefan Tymkewycz is continuously raised in the comment trails.)

I guess the real crux of it is, I am for free speech, but in a reasoned, measured capacity. Face it: Print newspapers don’t allow for free speech – not for the masses. Even if you write a letter to the editor it’s up to them to decide whether or not they’ll print it. And now, the question is whether or not they should.

TV news shows have started online polls and pulling select comments and broadcasting them in an effort to get more immediate feedback, but one of the things I see about this is the sensationalist aspect of it. Reality is, a news hour summary of a story is seldom conclusive, could contain errors and quite often is unbalanced, particularly if it’s a question of political views being discussed. The result is that online participants are set up to make comments that portray them as ignorant or extreme. This is part of the reason I stopped watching as much news as I used to. I could get more information in a balanced fashion online within minutes instead of waiting for the news to decide to talk about the issue of interest to me.

We know from the blogs (and I certainly know from forums) that the tendency if these things are left unchecked is for them to get into name-calling and catfights. I’ve been in enough myself. Here’s the real question for you:

Think back 5 years ago, to how you got news. Now, imagine you’re abducted by aliens and dropped on a planet very much like earth and they even speak English. You can’t get a hard copy of a newspaper to find out what’s going on, you can only go online. And when you read the news story you see all these people arguing and calling each other names below it. How seriously would you take the news site? Would you consider it credible journalism or something more along the lines of tabloid reporting?

I think this is my big problem with it: It smacks of sensationalism, and that smacks of tabloid reporting. I find myself wondering if the catfights influence what’s reported. The more people respond and react to something, the more they talk about it, because the hits go up for the site, right? People come back to continue the argument.

I have never commented on articles about Ian Rankin but I’ve certainly seen the comment trail. Granted, quoting him on politics was like painting a target on him. However, this is one of those situations that makes me step back and really think about what’s fair. The reality is, The Scotsman goes to Rankin for a comment on something, or writes up a story without comment from him (like this one, using comments from an appearance) and he gets to be slammed because the newspaper chose to write about him. What exactly is he supposed to do? Don’t talk to the media and you’re a snob who thinks you’re too good for the ‘common’ folk, and do talk to the media and risk being talked about to the point of irritation for some.

However, the comment trails following article after article demonstrate a quick descent into arguing, name-calling and petty commentary. Not just on Rankin, but on a lot of other ones. I wish I could find the one where the mudslinging went beyond anything else I’d seen… ever. However, by the point I saw it the newspaper had started pulling down comments, and what that tells me is this isn’t about free speech. And they’ve failed to control the posts and screen them, so I’m still left wondering at the logic of how this works.

Don’t get me completely wrong. I think a system involving reader commentary could be a great thing, for everyone. However, it needs a screening mechanism. We all know that the ability to speak anonymously is what contributes to the most ignorant behaviour imaginable as people use their lack of accountability as a way to attack others.

One of the things I also mentioned in the comment trail yesterday was that those who review on their blogs should resist any pressure to change the review unless they post a factual error. Part of the reason people can’t treat the internet as serious is that anyone can post anything, and declare a statement as fact without support. I try to back up any research I do online with at least three or four other independent sources. We’ve had scenarios where people have asked us to change their bio in a Spinetingler issue after it’s up, or their work, and unless they gave us the corrections prior to publication and we missed updating them we don’t do it. Everyone has a window of opportunity to make changes and give us updated copy. The problem with opening that door is that it makes it fluid. If you’re going to assert something, as in write a review, it should not be subject to change based on pressure from the author or readers, otherwise the opinion is contaminated. This is part of the reason why people don’t respect what gets published online as much. In general, I don’t care if people revise blogs. But I also don’t kid myself that my blog is some great literary work. It’s just straight thought from me on any given topic, rarely edited and usually pulled off in pretty short order.

If the internet wants to maintain a level of credibility it always needs to ask what the value of allowing something is. I think the current commenting system in place on some of the news sites is lowering the tone and undermining the credibility of those sites. I’ve picked on The Scotsman, because it’s the ‘paper’ I read the most that allows this. (Edited to add: It certainly isn't the only news site allowing comments, so I don't mean to portray them as worse than anyone else.)

I guess I’d like to see some mechanism that screens the comments so that they are relevant, not personal attacks on other commenters or on the people being discussed in the paper. You know what? It’s completely fine for people to be sick of reading about Ian Rankin, Prince Harry or anyone else. But here’s my question: Who forced you to click on the link, read the article and take time to make a comment? Maybe you just forgot to take your chill pill this morning and need to get your anger with the world out?

And I’m still left wondering over the discrepancy between allowing comments on some news stories, but not all. I can speculate on the reasoning myself, but I have issues with it. It suggests the motives aren’t about allowing readers to voice opinions on the news stories of the day…and are instead about something else.

But then, we’ve already established that I’m a skeptic. Maybe I just see conspiracies everywhere. Probably because I’m a blogger.

Yeah, that must be it. My background in journalism has nothing to do with it at all…


JamesO said...

Here comes the cynic in me...

Look at those pages on the Scotsman site - see there are advertisements on them. No doubt they get money on a pay per click basis, so the more people they can attract to the site, the better.

And some of the comment systems require you to put in an email address, which means that they can try and sell you things at a later date, or if you're in the States, sell the data on to someone else.

I suspect that the editorial decision as to which story gets comments and which doesn't is as much commercial driven as anything else.

Welcome to my world;}#

Sandra Ruttan said...

You're probably right James. Although I would think a lot of people would click on the story about Madeleine McCann. Honestly, I didn't realize it was still drawing the attention it was, but my site counter shows a fair number of hits here today from people searching her name online.

I get enough spam, so there's no way I'm going to start commenting on these things. Besides, it becomes a poison.

Steve Allan said...

Interesting subject. But as our media technology driven society expands (and at the same time shrinks) our world, people are finding a voice that they have never had before. I truly believe that a comments section on an on-line newspaper article is both healthy and inevitable. But I do agree with you that newspapers should probably hire a screener to weed out the whack jobs, but only to protect themselves.

The press is meant to be a filter of information, but as more and more "reporting" seems like direct press releases from various government officials - and many journalists have forgotten that one of their jobs is to challenge the information the government shovels them, the average person is turning to the internet. Look at Fox News, or any of Rubert Murdock's companies (for the opposite side, look at The Huffington Post or Keith Olbermann) and you'll see that news reporting isn't that objective anymore. Of course there have always been opinionated journalists, but we are in a time when information is not strictly reported, but analyzed to death until we don't know what is fact and what is opinion. Like I said before, people are heading to the internet to find the truth themselves, but the information is skewered there because people don't know how to filter it themselves.

I believe in a marketplace of free ideas, and putting up with the ignorant and the assholes is the price we pay for it. But we also have to put up with the chaos.

Sandra Ruttan said...

"The press is meant to be a filter of information, but as more and more "reporting" seems like direct press releases from various government officials - and many journalists have forgotten that one of their jobs is to challenge the information the government shovels them, the average person is turning to the internet."

I agree about the problems with journalism, and I can appreciate turning to the internet. No question. I'm all for differing points of view, just not getting on there for the purpose of personal attack. That's not giving people information or anything useful, unless they enjoy catfights. In which case, they'd probably enjoy TV a lot more, I'd think. And Jerry Springer.