The other night I went to see Chimerica, Lucy Kirkwood’s fine play about a photojournalist who searches for the never-identified Chinese man and hero of an iconic picture who stood defiantly in front of a line of tanks just after the massacre in Tiananmen Square.
On the way out of the theatre, I bumped into a fellow journalist. The newsroom dialogue was witty and sharp we happily agreed. And our favourite among those bits we also agreed was the crusty American editor spitting with rage about online comments below the newspaper’s online articles.
Frank, the editor in the play, is killing the search for the “tank man” because it costs too much and because the paper now has Chinese investors. Joe, the photographer, provokes this pungent speech from Frank by telling him that as an editor he’s supposed to be a guardian of a free press. Frank, sick of change, replies:
“Don’t you dare sit there and suffer at me, hell I suffer too! You think I enjoy using the word ‘multi-platform’? That I think it’s desirable to employ the best writers in the country, then stick a comments section under their articles, so whatever no-neck fucker from Arkansas can chip in his five uninformed, misspelled, hateful cents because God forbid an opinion should go unvoiced? Assholes Anonymous validating eachother in packs under my banner, that’s not a democratic press, it’s a nationwide circle-jerk for imbeciles.”
Now given that this marvellously-written eruption struck a chord with two journalists in the audience, you could conclude that it’s only journalists are uncomfortable with the idea of readers getting the opportunity to criticise so directly. I really doubt that: it is precisely because journalists respected the theory behind online comments that they have been slow and cautious to draw attention to the drawbacks of the way in which anonymous comment works in practice. Open reader comments aren’t enriching news as some imagined they might and I don’t think this view is confined to journalists.
As any regular reader of this blog will know, I’ve just published a book on journalism in the digital age (see to the right of this post) and one of themes I look at is the ways in which quality journalism can stand out in the future. I predict that news media who want a quality audience will gradually edge away from allowing anonymity for comments.
I detect a dislike and resentment among editors and reporters about comments, which surfaces occasionally but not often enough to do justice to the true strength of the feeling expressed by Frank. I know just how he feels.
I’ve written two pieces for the Guardian’s opinion space Comment is Free in the past year. One of those pieces was hardly likely to be popular with Guardian readers (I was praising David Cameron for a minor contribution to the tangled follow-up to the Leveson Inquiry), so hostile comments were to be expected. But the second was generally sympathetic to the Guardian’s position over the temporary detention of David Miranda. The comments were equally grumpy and hostile.
But for or against isn’t the point. You can say that I’m a sensitive flower and that if I don’t want to read these comments, I shouldn’t write to invite them. I’ve seen, very rarely, pieces which have attracted comment strings interesting enough to slog through. I’ve no wish to stop people expressing themselves.
But a bundle of journalism says that it is more than the sum of its parts: that should be part of its promise of value. The vast majority of comments I’ve seen over the years don’t come near giving value to anyone. At best, only a tiny fraction are worth reproducing. I can’t tell for sure, but I strongly suspect that a large majority are by men (is there research about this somewhere? I guess there must be). Their views are querulous, frequently miss the point and think insult is an opinion. A high proportion of what’s appended is moronic, lazily content to hide behind witty monikers. Frank isn’t exaggerating by much.
The idea that comments would add value turned out to be false. Worse, they are slowly becoming anti-value, repelling rather than attracting users. That’s why I predict that quality news and opinion sites of the future will find a way to remove the protection of anonymity and filter contributions so as to enhance the value of what they publish.
You can, of course, disagree with my opinion right here. As you’ll gather, I prefer to hear from people who identify themselves.