You may have noticed this morning that the Review Journal has disabled comments on news articles. Currently, each article in the RJ is appended with this notice:
Due to an increase in uncivil behavior and dialogue the Review-Journal has temporarily disabled the comment boards. The Review-Journal will use the time to evaluate the effectiveness of the comment boards and find an appropriate time to reintroduce them to reviewjournal.com.
A more detailed explanation can be read here.
That reads as though the RJ has put the Vegas Valley in time out for bad behavior, and maybe the valley, or at least some in the valley, deserve it. I admit that though I read the RJ every morning, I haven’t read the comments section in a while, so I have no idea whether there was an actual increase in uncivil behavior recently, though, to be honest, it’s hard to see how the comments could have become more uncivil than they have traditionally been.
The RJ is not the first news outlet to struggle with how to handle comments, nor will it be the last. That said, I have mixed feelings about the RJ’s decision.
I sympathize with the RJ as to the burden that these comments place on their resources. Any effort to create and enforce boundaries through a comments policy inevitably drains the very limited resources of the newspaper.
From the RJ’s more detailed explanation:
The reality is that there are simply not enough resources to effectively moderate every story on our site, especially when high-profile stories can rack up hundreds of comments over the course of a few minutes, many that have nothing to do with the topic at hand. We are not unique in this. In an age of ever-leaner newsrooms, not many are in a situation to pull from elsewhere to keep hate-mongers at bay.
Though the RJ doesn’t reference it, I am sure that over the years they have also received numerous “preservation letters” as to potentially defamatory comments. A preservation letter is a demand by someone, usually the person who has been allegedly defamed, that a third party, such as the RJ, preserve certain electronic evidence such as the IP address, email address or other data about the anonymous commenter who engaged in allegedly defamatory conduct. Though the RJ itself is shielded from liability from the defamatory comments of anonymous users by Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, there could potentially be liability for the RJ if they failed to preserve evidence upon receipt of a letter. And then there’s the not insignificant administrative cost and burden of dealing with preservation letters.
That said, I do see value in the comments section of the RJ as much of a cesspool as it may be at times. I recall last year that RJ columnist Steve Sebelius commented on twitter that while the overwhelming majority of comments have little to no substantive value or insight, there are a smattering of smart takes that appear. I tend to agree with this. And even the comments which are bigoted, racist and hateful serve a limited purpose as they remind us of the harsh reality that such ignorant darkness exists right here in our own valley. That dark reality would exist whether or not revealed by the comments section in the RJ. We are better off as a community knowing that it exists.
Additionally, sometimes the subjects of a news article will appear in the comments section to engage the public, at times promoting their cause, at other times setting the record straight as they see it. This can act as a check on the RJ, as well as give people in the news the opportunity to speak directly to the public. This is especially valuable where the person in the article is a lay person without a bully pulpit.
Of course, comments on the RJ have been anonymous, which is both a blessing and a curse. Anonymity removes the social consequences of airing a particular point of view which both liberates otherwise marginalized voices to speak freely but also allows bullies to romp unbounded by social norms and decency.
I hope the RJ finds a way to make comments work on their website, though I sympathize with the many problems and burdens the comments bring.