When I pointed out to an editor that the comments on our website were mostly from wingnuts, he said those comments were still important because they told us how people were thinking.
I was too flabbergasted to give the obvious response: No, they don’t. They tell you what cranky people are thinking.
The good news: The Washington Post is making an effort to find the sane ones. If you’re curious about such things, follow their comments for the next few months.
Ideally, comments would give reporters important feedback from knowledgeable people. The Holy Grail of comments on websites is to turn it into “crowd-sourcing,” getting people to share information and insights. And yet the reality is that most comments are full of hostility and crap.
Sadly, most news organizations have cut off the easy ways of contacting journalists. (I disagree with the Poynter conclusion that every journalists’ phone number should be out there — if journalists are getting 50 calls a day, they’re going to stop answering the phone.) The comments are good for people who want to shout at each other or perhaps, on rare occasion, form a “community” of half-reasonable people. Provide a direct line to journalists, and the quality of discourse improves.
Reasonable people, the ones journalists need to be speaking with, have the common sense to know that they’re more likely to get a reply or do some good if they write reasonably. Unreasonable people are often taken aback and a little chagrined when they find that someone actually took the time to read their crap and write them back without returning the hostility.
But in any case, if you want to reach people who aren’t devoting large chunks of their lives to shouting in whatever forum you give them, you have to make it easy for them. We have lives.
John Oliver demonstrates: