December 8, 2014

St. Louis Post-Dispatch

The editorial board of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch announced Monday in an editorial that it’s turning off comments in the editorial section.



Last Sunday, we challenged our region to have the serious discussion on race that it has been avoiding for decades. Such difficult discussions are made more challenging when, just to present a thoughtful point of view, you have to endure vile and racist comments, shouting and personal attacks.

It’s a two-month experiment, the editorial reports, and you can still comment in the news section. But “We intend to use our opinion pages to help the St. Louis region have a meaningful discussion about race. So we are going to turn off the comments in the editorial section for a while, and see what we learn from it.”

Tony Messenger, the Post-Disptach’s editorial page editor, said most of the reactions he’d seen so far on Monday supported the experiment. He did get emails from his daily emailers, and they weren’t happy, but he expected that. Last, week, the editorial page asked readers to help find solutions to the difficult issues around race that exist in St. Louis, and “that is really hard to have when the first comment under any sort of a letter or editorial is something that degrades the conversation rather than elevates it.”

Messenger himself doesn’t read the comments, he said, and that’s not a good thing either. The Post-Dispatch does require readers to register through Facebook, and since making that change, he said, the tone has gotten a bit better, but “there are just people, even with their names, that were willing to say things in the comments section that I don’t think they’d say face to face.”

The editorial section wants to reflect the perspectives of readers, he said, and they do so through letters and editorials, some that are volatile and border on offensive. But they’re filtered through editors for tone and taste. Messenger doesn’t think the Post-Dispatch is alone in having a comment section that gets quite ugly, and he does think some newsrooms deal with it better by having them constantly moderated.

Renee Thomas-Woods, assistant professor of communications at St. Louis Community College–Florissant Valley, stopped reading comments on the Post-Dispatch a while ago, but after Ferguson, she started peeking at them again. The Post-Dispatch has done a good job showing different perspectives on public opinion with Ferguson news, she said. But many were racist, mean and just nasty.

“I understand that the Post might be getting a bit overloaded with a number of these kinds of comments,” she said. “I know while they want to be fair and objective and show people’s reactions and opinions, they don’t want to be a sounding board necessarily for the negative and destructive comments.”

Not all the comments were racist, she said, some offered solutions, but the overall tone tended to silence people and keep them from reading. Now, she said, the Post-Dispatch has been forced to silence the comments themselves.

While the Post-Dispatch is trying the end of comments as an experiment, other publications have already pulled the plug and suggested people head to social media. On Nov. 7, Poynter’s Andrew Beaujon wrote about the end of comments at Reuters. He included a list of other sites that no longer have comments, such as Popular Science and the Chicago Sun-Times. Also in November, Re/code ended comments, noting that most discussions happen on social media, makihg “onsite comments less and less used and less and less useful.”

The Post-Dispatch hasn’t committed to anything longer than two months for this experiment, Messenger said, and he hopes that removing comments from the opinion section can help spur change.

“In my gut,” he said, “I would like them not to return.”

h/t Sarah Kendzior

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Kristen Hare covers the people and business of local news and is the editor of Locally at Poynter. She previously worked as a staff writer…
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