It’s time to end the rage and hate forums

Reader comments. Story comments. Rage and hate forums. Call them what you want, but the comments section at the end of every Lansing State Journal story posted at its web site have gone from crazy and laughable to pointless and stupid.

When will the publishers of the State Journal realize that their reader comments section destroys the paper’s credibility as a beacon of truth and leadership in the community? Allowing unmoderated comments from hurtful people focused only on their own agendas of hate is the last thing this region needs and making it an official record by hosting it at the LSJ web site is a disservice.

I don’t mean to single out the State Journal, because they certainly are not alone in this age of anonymous rage. I just happen to be exposed to that newspaper more than others because it’s my local paper. I posted a question on Twitter today about this subject:

Reader comments at (the Lansing State Journal) are filled with rage & hate. Do all local papers have that problem?

It was disheartening to have so many people reply in the affirmative:

Yes. It’s the anonymity that allows for it. Newspapers rushed to add the comments, but didn’t know how to build a community. ~ Ike Pigott, Birmingham, Ala.

The (Detroit Free Press) and (Detroit News) reader comments are also filled with rage and hate, and most discussions turn to race in no time at all. ~ Maureen Francis, Birmingham, Mich.

I’ve seen the same on Detroit and other news websites. Kinda makes you lose faith in your fellow (hu)man. 😦  ~ Kate Sumbler, Michigan

Yes, they do. I think it’s bad on news sites because there’s an anonymity in ranting about something you don’t agree with on web. ~ Valerie Morgan, Lansing, Mich.

And it’s more than just nonsense — it’s a problem for journalists and their sources. As Louise Knott Ahern pointed out, “Negative comments actually scare off sources from talking to the media.” There’s an interesting piece about this phenomenon involving the Washington Post here.

It was awesome to get a much more positive response from Derek Wallbank, a reporter for MinnPost. As Derek explained, “We moderate comments & require real names to post anything. Keeps it more civil.”

Hallelujah — a newspaper with a conscience! I looked up MinnPost’s terms of service about comments:

MinnPost does not permit the use of foul language, personal attacks or the use of language that may be libelous or interpreted as inciting hate or sexual harassment. User comments are reviewed by moderators to ensure that comments meet these standards and adhere to MinnPost’s terms of use and privacy policy. We intend for this area to be used by our readers as a place for civil, thought-provoking and high-quality public discussion. In order to achieve this, MinnPost requires that all commenters register and post comments with their actual names and place of residence.

Imagine how wonderful it would be to have a hometown newspaper with a solid terms of service that required real names to be used in a forum moderated for civility. The Lansing State Journal’s terms of service make promises, but the paper falls short of enforcing them every day. The LSJ’s terms read:

(Readers agree not to)…Engage in personal attacks, harass or threaten, question the motives behind others’ posts or comments, deliberately inflame or disrupt the conversation, or air personal grievances about other users.

And, of course, it doesn’t help that many newspapers don’t require the use of someone’s real name when posting comments. It’s interesting that they require name, address and phone number when you submit a letter to the editor, but online they let hate and rage run unchecked. As Nate Erickson, a recent Michigan State University graduate now living in New York, noted: “Anonymity or perceived anonymity breeds idiocy.”

Idiocy. Rage. Hate. Call it what you want. It’s time for real names, personal responsibility and common civility to replace it all. This is my public challenge to the Lansing State Journal publishers to lead the way. Claim your place as a leader in building a positive online community by reviewing your policies, improving them and enforcing them. If you build it, we will come.

Love it or hate it, Journalism 2.0 is amazing

Lots of folks are familiar with the term “Web 2.0,” which refers to the interactive Internet so many of us have come to appreciate and rely upon. In the past couple of weeks I’ve had experiences leading me to the realization that as a former journalist, I’m envious of the reporters who now get to practice their trade in this era of what some are calling “Journalism 2.0.” (Mark Briggs even has a blog by that name that is a running conversation about journalism and technology.)

What got me started down this recent path was writing a piece for Dome magazine about changes occurring in the Lansing, Mich. radio market, including a new Internet-only radio station. That led to a guest appearance on a local radio talk show. During the interview, the host and I were chuckling about how we were discussing changes in radio based on an article I wrote for a magazine — but one that is only published online now. That was interesting experience number one.

The second came when I was contacted by a journalist who is working on a story for a local print magazine that features my wife Jessi. There’s a reference to me in the article, so the reporter contacted me to find out my title at the company I work for. What struck me about the outreach was that it was via Twitter, and the reporter saying, “I tweeted my question because I’m on deadline.”

Of course the reporter, Louise Knott Ahern, also found amusement in my reply, which is that I would probably end up blogging about her tweeting because she’s on deadline. She replied: “I like that your response is that you feel a blog post coming on. Times changing, indeed.” Louise should know. One of the daily papers she’s written for has been shedding reporting staff lately faster than one can say, “I already read this online.”

The third event that triggered this post was writing an article for Ragan.com about cross-posting on social media. The piece’s readership picked up steam when it was shared a lot on Twitter, but it truly came to life when people starting posting thoughtful and thought-provoking comments on it.

I even added a comment to the article:

One of the things I value as an online journalist vs. when I was a print journalist is all the great discussions that can spring from the original article. This is another great example. Thanks for all the comments and allowing us all to learn from every one of you.

I come from an era of journalism that isn’t really that far removed from the present, at least in terms of years. It was the late 1980s and early 1990s when I was putting pen to paper, furiously jotting down notes, statistics and lively quotes to inform and entertain readers.

It’s amazing to think how much has changed in 20 years. I’m not just talking about the technology, although that certainly plays a pivotal role in what has happened. I’m referring to the engagement with the audience that journalists today both enjoy and, probably, revile.

News reports now have an opportunity to become living, breathing entities, fueled by the insightfulness and, unfortunately, the thoughtlessness, delivered by the readers and viewers. These “flame wars” are best illustrated by a comical piece on YouTube involving Beaker from the Muppets.

So, certainly, there is a negative side to allowing comments. And the strain of a constant deadline brought about by a Web-based beast that is perpetually hungry for information is a tough one for some journalists to stomach.

Still, there’s no question that Journalism 2.0 should be embraced and revered. I often long for my days as a full-time newspaper reporter. But, lately, I can’t help but feel sorry for that former journalist who never had a chance to practice his trade the way he could now.

I wonder if the journalism students of today appreciate what they have available to them in their future careers? And, as the name of this blog says, “Here comes later,” so I hope they’re ready for it. Are you?