As a rule, journalists love feedback – concrete evidence that the fruit of their labour is not only finding an audience, but having an impact. And yet there is nothing quite as divisive as the comments that are posted directly to stories online.
For anyone not that familiar with them, think a mix of talk radio and the more heated debates conducted on social media. The views expressed are quick and, at times, emotional responses to the issue of the day. And on some subjects, such as politics and sports, they become agitated and partisan pretty quickly. (Much like the House of Commons during Question Period.)
The problem is that those doing the expressing seem to think everything should be up for debate – and that anything goes. Then, if a media outlet feels things have gone too far and decides to delete a comment, they are quick to rail against "political correctness" and "ideological bias."
Opposing them are more temperate readers, along with many journalists and those they write about. This group looks at the racism, misogyny and extreme language often on display, and wonder just what comments add to a civil debate. Some would prefer to see them banned outright.
In reality, most comments are just fine: They can be heated, sarcastic and political, and still be perceptive, even uplifting, as well as add to the debate by challenging accepted wisdom.
But too many do go too far – becoming personal, racist and bordering on hate speech. The end result can be so toxic that several news outlets, including The Toronto Star, have simply dispensed with comments altogether (and, in return, been accused of going too far themselves).
The CBC has also announced changes to its comments function, including asking everyone to use their real name. This will be done through reregistering with a verifiable e-mail address or having people use their Facebook or Google+ sign-on. The National Post already requires users to log in using their Facebook account.
Not everyone appreciates the trend, such as a Globe subscriber from Edmonton: "I am writing to pre-empt what I anticipate to be increasing pressure for The Globe and Mail to remove the online comment facility for articles.
"I really enjoy reading the comments accompanying an article and people's opinions in general. I consider comments to be the ultimate in democratic discourse and, while there are some which are vacuous or offensive, most of the comments are still insightful and thought-provoking. Even the 'nasty' ones are part of the spectrum of public opinion and still a useful gauge of public sentiment. I also look at the comment totals as a flag of public interest and engagement."
Perhaps there is a middle ground, a way of keeping the discourse civil – and alive. In fact, a team at The Globe is currently studying how to encourage the thoughtful while blocking out the hateful.
It's not an easy task to allow readers to debate the issues of the day and still guard against the crass personal attacks in which Internet trolls so love to indulge. The goal is to protect the middle ground with clear terms of engagement.
There are already controls on The Globe and Mail site. The standards are no secret – they appear at the top of the comments area: "Personal attacks, offensive language and unsubstantiated allegations are not allowed." To ensure compliance (as well as a fair ruling), The Globe employs outside moderators, who keep a close watch for problems and rely on the commenting community at large to help out.
In addition, Globe editors will exclude certain stories from comments – usually ones about legal matters, criminal trials and potential criminal charges. Also, comments on stories about a specific basket of topics that are known to attract hate must be approved by a moderator before they can even appear. Editors around the world will tell you they have problems with the same subjects: immigration, the Middle East, Muslims, indigenous people, women's rights and the LGBTQ community.
Recently, one long-time reader wondered why comments weren't allowed on coverage of the mass shooting in Orlando, asking whether The Globe does the same for other tragedies. "Is there a formal process for deciding when to close comments? Is it politics? Is it the particular issue? I'm curious," she wrote.
I replied that, although the call wasn't mine, I agreed. It was not a day to risk even one venomous statement.
The Globe also has a longstanding policy, in the case of attacks linked to terrorism, of closing comments on articles about the actual violence, the perpetrators and their motives but allowing them (after being screened) for stories and columns about the broader issues involved (such as gun control, who the victims were, the worldwide fight against terror).
And what do I think? In my view, it is well worth exploring ways to manage the comments better – in fact, a recent article by the U.S.-based Poynter Institute for Media Studies made no fewer than 27 suggestions.
One of them came from Nick Diakopoulos, a professor of computational journalism at the University of Maryland. He conducted an experiment on algorithms to assign ratings to good comments, and noted that, while good comments lead to civil discussions, "comment sections are no different than our neighbourhoods. If they look littered, with incivility or irrelevance, people will think it's okay to make those kind of comments."
As public editor, I hear from the trollish as well as from reasonable readers and, in my experience, they can be rude. They shout, they don't read the terms and conditions for comments, and they demand that removed remarks be restored even if the moderators' decisions are considered final.
I think that Prof. Diakopoulos is absolutely correct: The conversation must be remain civil. So, if comments are to be kept, I would advocate tighter rules for certain topics, such as race, immigration, religion, sexual identity, women's rights, indigenous people – and that extra effort be made to protect minority groups (and women) from abuse. That would mean more screening and, as necessary, closing comments more often.
And what about you? If you have thoughts on how to keep the discourse civil, here's how to share them with The Globe team: Post a comment to this article.