THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING
Douglas Bailey

Got a comment? Keep it to yourself

By Douglas Bailey
July 15, 2009
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I’M AN information junkie. I use my work as a media consultant as an excuse, but anyone observing me would think I’m constantly feeding some horrible addiction as I fiddle with my iPhone, surf the Web, whipsaw the TV remote between various news networks, and skate up and down the news-radio dial searching for the latest 411. The variety of available technology and material perfectly feeds my mania: Internet, satellite radio and TV, digital phone, instant messaging, newspapers, magazines, e-books, Twitter, Facebook, CNN, boston.com, Slate, and on and on.

But as satiated as I am with the enormous and varied flow of available information, I’ve concluded there’s one outlet that should be abandoned: those comment forums at the end of articles on newspaper websites.

I realize these forums have their advocates. Publishers apparently believe forums help drive people to their website and provide opportunity for interactive exchanges of ideas, comments, corrections, and expansion of debate and topics.

Instead, these forums are insidiously contributing to the devaluation of journalism, blurring the truth, confusing the issues, and diminishing serious discourse beyond even talk radio’s worst examples.

My problems with these forums can be boiled down to three peeves: The level of commentary demeans and devalues the very product newspapers should be promoting; sniping, misinformation, and insensitivity that would not be tolerated in the newspaper that hosts the forums are regularly posted, seemingly encouraged, and even granted an aura of legitimacy from the association with the host’s brand; they create a self-perpetuating cycle in which anonymous, unverified information creeps into legitimate news coverage in ways that haven’t been fully vetted.

I feel sorry for today’s reporters and columnists, who work hard gathering information dutifully trying to raise the debate on issues or inform the public on a burning topic only to have some agenda-driven bonehead who doesn’t have the courage - or need - to identify himself or herself and isn’t bound by the same ethics or policies tear down the work product the moment it appears.

Have newspaper publishers and editors really thought through all the repercussions? Is it just a numbers game; that is, do they think the volume of comments equals support for good journalism?

There’s the story of the reporter upset with his superiors for trimming several paragraphs from his article because of inadequate attribution, sourcing, or potential libel who simply logged on to his paper’s website under an assumed name and posted a rewritten version of the deleted material at the end of his own story, in the comments field. Apocryphal? Maybe. But how do we know it’s not happening all the time? If this reporter’s own editor deems the material problematic, why then give anyone free license to attach it to the story?

I recently contacted a blog that has apparently gained a reputation as an “authoritative source’’ on local news to point out an outrageously inaccurate - and easily verifiable - item posted on the site, attributed to one of its many “insiders.’’ The editor of the site conceded to me his “inside’’ information had actually come from an anonymous posting he saw on a newspaper website. If this wasn’t outrageous enough, this site has developed a following among traditional media reporters who apparently believe this blogger is wired and who regularly republish his missives unaware that his “exclusive’’ sources come from anonymous comments on their own websites. The identities of the “insiders’’ are unknown even to the original blogger.

This is insane. We know that newspapers made a mistake and devalued their product by giving it away for free on the Internet. Some rebuilding could begin by removing these reader forums and restoring journalism’s dignity.

By the way, don’t bother posting any comments directed to me when this article appears on the Web. I won’t see them. Instead, go start your own website or blog or buy a legitimate newspaper, or write a letter to the editor, or an op-ed (and sign your own name to it). If you really have something interesting to say, I’ll find you.

Douglas Bailey is president of DBMediaStrategies Inc. in Newton.

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