When Comments Turn Nasty

Should an editor get involved in a comments battle?

The heat in the comment stream on the EG Little League majors baseball championship game two weeks ago took me by surprise.

The Phillies were the returning champs for the third year in a row. They were, of course, thrilled. The losing team, which had gone from the bottom of the heap to within one game of winning it all, was disappointed. The thrill of victory, the agony of defeat - nothing new there.

For the first couple of days, it seemed to be traveling the familiar path of such stories: those involved read the story and send it to relatives and friends, and maybe there’s a comment or two of congratulations. Typically, the story then sinks into online oblivion, rescued only occasionally by some interested searcher. Not this story.

Two days after the story ran, “doris” posted a comment decrying what she said was the intense politicization of East Greenwich Little League. The comments section was off to the races. It became a two-side debate - with a few people responsible for most of the comments, both pro- and anti-EGLL

After two days, I got an email requesting that the story be taken down to stem the comment tide. I had no intention of pulling down a benign story just so people would stop commenting on it. But I understood, too, that a battle was being waged in the comments section. After re-reading the comments, I deleted two that focused negative comments too closely on a single person. We want people to feel free to air their opinions, but we do stop short of comments that could be taken as libel.

Still, it caused me to reflect, once again, on the purpose of the comments section. Some people have told me that they don’t like East Greenwich Patch precisely because of the comments. But, over the past couple of years, I’ve come to see that the comments section is part of the democratization of news.

I write a story about a EGLL championship game. I have as much information as I’ve been able to collect but obviously not all the information that’s out there. The comments section allows everyone else to add to the story, for good or ill. Because the comments section is pretty much the only way readers have to interact with the website, I've tried hard NOT to comment. That's not always feasible, but it's the ideal: to let a story float out in cyberspace and allow others to do what they will with it.

GameMaker July 04, 2011 at 11:19 AM
Having been dealing with boards since the late '80s, I think you handled the situation about as well as it's possible to. I wouldn't worry about censorship too much either--while "freedom of speech" comes up in the Constitution, it has no application here in what is essentially your private sandbox. :-) People are free to visit or not, or identify themselves as fully as they wish, and I don't see anyone being forced to weed through long vitriolic threads about Little League. And while I'm ambivalent about anonymity on the net, it has its uses, and I personally don't feel that I am a rotten sack of potatoes for using a screen name. :-) As with anything else, if people are bothered by something they see in a discussion forum, simply stop looking at it, and it will go away.
Therese Vezeridis July 04, 2011 at 12:08 PM
Happy Independence Day to all!
Mark Thompson July 04, 2011 at 12:34 PM
Nailed it, Editor. Anonymous comments are worthless...kind of like blind quotes in a story -- they should be barred except in extraordinary situations. As for: "We've had The Pendulum for 150 years, and have never been able talk back." In that case, what the heck were all those letters the Pendulum was getting and printing when I was there in the mid-1970s?
Priscilla Welsh July 04, 2011 at 04:59 PM
How appropriate a topic for the 4th of July! Carry On!
Judy Bailey July 05, 2011 at 01:13 AM
The Pendulum did indeed have an opportunity for anonymous telephone comments back in the 1990s. I remember it well because as Town Council Prez I was the subject of a few (minor of course) complaints via this "hot line." I feel that in most circumstances people should have the opportunity to know who their accuser is,


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