What do journalists think about the online comments readers leave on their stories? Not much.
Ever have a burning desire to leave an online comment after reading a news article? Many readers do, and act on it.
How do journalists react to comments on their stories?
I queried several dozen professional journalists and editors about their reaction to online comments from readers.
The result? Let’s just say that the majority of professional writers pay more attention to their mouse pad than to reader comments . . .
Says Robert Schlesinger, Managing Opinion Editor at U.S. News & World Report: “We don’t run reader comments anymore; when we did run them I rarely read them and advised my writers against doing so because anger seems to drive commenters more than agreement.”
Josh Verges writes for the Pioneer Press in St Paul, Minnesota. He represents the minority of the journalists I contacted who value reader comments. He writes: “I do generally read or at least skim the comments on my stories, both on Facebook and twincities.com. I pay closer attention to people who rarely comment because they often have a particular insight into the story. Hundreds of thousands of people interact with the institutions I cover, and story comments are an easy way to get a glimpse at their perspectives.”
Another reporter from the same newspaper, Bob Shaw, dismisses reader comments out of hand: “I don’t bother looking at the on-line comments. It’s usually a waste of time to wade through dozens of them in search of the one constructive piece of criticism. Anyone who spots a factual error or wants to make a point usually calls me, so we can talk about it — which I do find worthwhile.”
“I’m surprised at how quickly the comments section turns into a back-and-forth debate over the Obama presidency.”
Hugo Martin is a writer for the Los Angeles Times. He feels somewhat ambivalent about reader comments:
“I skim through readers comments on my stories primarily to see if anyone challenges the accuracy of my story. I think the comments can sometimes be helpful in ensuring we put out the most accurate information.
I’m surprised at how quickly the comments section turns into a back-and-forth debate over the Obama presidency. Even articles that have nothing to do with Obama or his policies will often trigger a debate over Obama. For example, if I write that tourism spending is up, partly because of an improved economy, the comments section will erupt in a feud over whether the economy has really improved and whether Obama had anything to do with it. Wow.”
Wow, indeed. An editor at the Wall Street Journal, who did not wish to be named, emailed me: “Off the record, if I were to guess unscientifically, I would guess that most reporters ignore them . . . ”
Amber Phillips, at the Washington Post, is pretty adamant about online comments: “I never, ever read the comments on my stories. I do scroll through once a day mentions on my Twitter account, which is of a similar vein to the comments in my stories, but I don’t spend too much time on them.”
Anne Kadet writes for the Wall Street Journal, among other newspapers, and she, too, mentions the recurrent Obamaphobia in reader’s comments on her stories:
“I don’t make a habit of reading comments, not because I’m too busy or not interested, but because I tend to be overly concerned with what others might be thinking about me and my work–reading comments just aggravates this tendency. It’s a shame I can’t indulge, because I am very curious to read what other folks have to say about the topics I cover.
When I do have a lapse and read comments, I always get a kick out of the fact that no matter what topic I cover–food, the arts, real estate–several readers will invariably note that what I wrote serves as proof that Obamacare doesn’t work.”
“The more insightful debate is on Twitter”
The final word goes to yet another St Paul Pioneer Press reporter. If you’re wondering at the preponderance of quotes from reporters at that newspaper, I can tell you frankly it’s because, out of all the newspaper reporters I contacted, the ones at the Pioneer Press were the most forthcoming, followed by the Wall Street Journal. Reporters at the New York Times absolutely refused to comment on the subject, as did reporters at several other prominent national newspapers. I can only speculate that they felt completely above the fray of online comments, and were content to dawdle on Mount Olympus sipping ambrosia.
Reporter Fred Melo gives online comments some thoughtful comment: “It helps to read the comments with a brave face, a wizened soul, and an open mind. Rarely do they do more than yap, but there’s occasional nuggets of perspective worth considering. So I consider them, with great grains of salt. The more insightful debate is on Twitter, where I can choose who to follow and users are more apt to link back to articles and web sources to back up their point of view.”
So if you desperately want to make your opinion known to a journalist about his or her story, don’t bother to comment — either tweet them or call them.
Or, since Valentine’s Day is coming up, say it with flowers.
(And by the way, did you notice there’s absolutely no way you can comment on this story?)