Online Comments? None for me, please.

This morning, Saturday, July 29, a hot air balloon crashed in Texas killing all 16 people on board. (Newsome, 2016) The story was reported on CNN’s Facebook page at one p.m. By nine p.m. there were 529 comments running the gamut from grief to political to curious to macabre.

Many questioned the wisdom of putting 16 people in one balloon while admitting they knew nothing about ballooning or basket capacity. One person believed the obesity of America was to blame as many of them were likely overweight so that a balloon designed for 16 should probably only have carried 12 and a lawsuit against the balloon company is most certainly on the way. A lady who lives near the crash site scolded people who were making light of the tragedy. (I couldn’t help but wonder why she was online in the comment section of the article when something so terrible was happening just down her street.) And the list goes on.

Each comment was written with confidence, with the writer sure that his or her opinion would substantially to the conversation. (Even those writers who were most positive that the Democrats will outlaw hot air balloons because that’s what they do – sit around looking for ways for the government to interfere in our private lives . . .) Perhaps some of the folks commenting really did know what they were talking about. But it was impossible to tell that from the forum. It appeared that the comments only serve to stir the pot and diminish the importance of the event.

Sixteen people are dead and the commenters presume the right to use those deaths to carry on inane conversations in public space with people they don’t know and will probably never meet. Welcome to communication ethics circa 2016.

Perhaps the whole reader comment idea hits a little too close to home. As a stringer for a regional newspaper, I have been on the receiving end of some very hurtful comments. In my experience as a writer, there are many folks out there that seem to have nothing better to do than wait for a story to hit the internet so they can pick it apart sentence by sentence, word by word.

Did I spell a word wrong? (Inexcusable, but understandable given the quick turnaround time and lack of professional proofreaders due to budget cuts.) Did I not talk to a source they thought I should have contacted, or did I quote a source they disagreed with? Perhaps they didn’t agree with what was happening in the article, but because I reported on it, I am the bad guy who needs to 1) go back to school and learn to spell 2) find another career where my biased opinions and the paper I write for won’t ruin society or 3) go straight to . . . you get the idea .

Evidently I’m not the only one that this concerns as many online publications, including CNN, have disabled their comment section. Instead, they direct readers to their social media sites where they can duke it out till the cows come home if they would like. In reporting on the movement of comments to its Facebook page, CNN’s Doug Gross says, “. . . comments on most stories were disabled in August. They are selectively activated on stories that editors feel have the potential for high-quality debate — and when writers and editors can actively participate in and moderate those conversations. Editors and moderators now regularly host discussions on CNN’s Facebook and Twitter accounts.” (Gross, 2014) According to Gross, some news outlets say the move was made because social media is a better forum for this kind of discussion; others blame it on online trolls. (Gross, 2014)

Personally, I don’t believe that informed moderators would make any difference on these sites. I think most folks that write comments already have their minds made up, their opinions in place, even before they read the article. The substance of the article only serves to reinforce what they already believe – either by agreeing with what they believe or giving them an excuse to espouse what they believe and tell all the world why the article – and its author – are wrong. I believe removing the comments from the publication site and directing them to social media will help those readers who just want news without unsubstantiated commentary. Sadly, I’m not sure it will help preserve sacred public space as everyone appears to be overly interested and confident in their own opinion. Comparing it to junior high drama, our text states that, “this form of discourse continues throughout life wherever there is a rejection of difference, demanding that others or activities be as “I” so proclaim. Such private discourse that invades the public area seeks not to change public policy, but to enhance the self relationally.” (Arnett, Fritz, & Bell, 2009, p. 105)

Arnett, Fritz and Bell talk about the “ . . .unknown, the unheard and the unseen party in a conversation.” (Arnett, Fritz, & Bell, 2009, p. 111) In many cases, I wonder if those silent voices are the folks who, instead of just sitting on their couch and welding a keyboard or phone to complain and whine about what’s going on around them, are actually in the trenches, working to make a real difference in the world. After all, we are all in this together!

 

References

Arnett, R.C., Fritz, J. M.H, Bell, L. M. (2009) Communications ethics literacy: dialogue and difference. Los Angeles, CA: Sage.

Gross, D. (2014, November 21) Online Comments Are Being Phased Out. CNN. Retrieved from http://www.cnn.com/2014/11/21/tech/web/online-comment-sections/index.html

Newsome, J. (2016, July 30) G=Hot Air Balloon Crashes In Texas. CNN. Retrieved from https://www.facebook.com/cnn/

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