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Media, ethics, and journalism. What works. What doesn't.


Jeffrey Dvorkin

Friday, August 19, 2016

When Media Organizations Say: "No Comment!"

NPR has joined the ranks of other media organizations in ending the ability of listeners (and others) to comment on its website.

"We've reached the point where we've realized that there are other, better ways to achieve the same kind of community discussion around the issues we raise in our journalism," Scott Montgomery, NPR's managing editor of digital news, explained.

Most other journalists have said this is long overdue.

Chris Cillizza, writing in the Washington Post expressed the hope that other media organizations will follow NPR's lead.

On Facebook, NPR journalists commented in approval (perhaps not everyone appreciating the irony).

Some media managers have used comments to determine their own news agendas. If a story gets a lot of comments or "hits," editors have unfortunately used this as a rationalization to keep doing the same story. Over and over again. Eventually, it degenerates into clickbait.

While comments have become an all-too frequent swamp of racism, misogyny and general weirdness, dispensing with them may not be in the best interests of news organizations.

As I mentioned on Facebook:

There is a downside: even though trolls make up a sorry proportion of commentators, the fact that NPR now removes itself from giving access to listeners (legit ones, that is), makes the gap between the public and the media that much greater. Comments should be moderated by NPR, and not abandoned, imo. But of course, that costs money and fewer media orgs can afford it. Can they afford to ignore the audience entirely?

That was followed by a post by one John Pemble from Des Moines who opined:

Yes. We aren't a public forum. We never were.

Really John? I thought that the purpose of news organizations is to act as the intermediary between citizens and the issues.

Of course, the one ray of hope in all this is the role of the public editor - a position still important although as news organizations look for ways to monetize their product, an ombudsman/public editor can be viewed as an extravagance. 

Two problems and two solutions:

One, the digital culture has democratized media with its attendant problems of anonymity and the coarsening of public conversation. 

Two,  if citizens feel that the media is even more removed from their concerns, this will only strengthen the feelings of alienation and anger that we see the Trump (and the Bernie) people expressing.

As for solutions, media organizations need to pay attention to the web - even the nasty side of it. In my role of ombudsman at NPR, I had to deal with a lot of that. And I admit, it's become much nastier. 

But I also connected with people who had real concerns and passionately expressed. It was exhausting, but still the most interesting job of journalism one could have.

Secondly, media organizations need to find an effective way to triage the comments. Journalists make choices all the time. They need to find a way to connect with the best and most thoughtful ideas (even when they are harsh), and trash the rest.

Not all ideas deserve sunlight which pace Justice Brandeis who said: "Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants; electric light the most efficient policeman."

In these overcast days, we need more online electricity to brighten our way.  

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