Thursday, March 19, 2009

What's Wrong with the STLtoday Comment Section

I hate to knock my only hometown newspaper. Again.

Especially when, like the rest of the print media industry, it's probably about to go bankrupt.

But as a writer, as a sometime-editor, as an active social media user, as a blogger, as someone who has lived in the St. Louis metro area all of my life, hell, as a human being, I just can't hold this back any longer.

The comment section is hurting St. Louis.

I mean it. I mean it like Jon Stewart meant it when he went on Crossfire and told Tucker Carlson and Paul Begala that they were hurting America.

Any marginally sane, reasonably educated, and moderately moral St. Louisan who has visited (the online version of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch) and chanced to read the comments below an article more than a time or two will know what I mean.

The STLtoday commenting community is dominated by anti-social pessimists, belligerent misanthropists, racist ignoramuses, provincial neighborhood isolationists, one-note issue pushers who twist every discussion to fit their personal political agendas, and plain old attention-seeking trolls.

If a person dies accidentally in St. Louis, and the Post-Dispatch reports on it, you can count the minutes until someone will jump into the STLtoday comment thread on the story and make a comment about what an idiot the poor dead person was, and how much that person's death has improved the local gene pool.

If the newspaper website reports that home has been broken into, at least one comment will be sure to blame the homeowner for not owning a gun. (This axiom applies whether or not the homeowner was home at the time of the break-in, because apparently, in the minds of extreme gun ownership promoting STLtoday comment thread trolls, just owning a gun with a concealed carry permit magically protects one in perpetuity from every type of crime.)

If a crime occurs — anywhere in the St. Louis metro, any time, committed by any person of any race, under any circumstances — you can bet your bottom dollar that a chorus of obnoxious, barely-lettered white men who spend their apparently copious free time pretending to be righteous armchair race warriors will show up blaming the "creeping black menace." Never mind that African American people have lived and worked and owned businesses and raised families in St. Louis since, oh, how about since St. Louis was founded?

If a crime occurs where I live, in North County, expect a parade of comments (note that some of the worst and most racist ones I saw yesterday have actually been deleted) from people who have never lived in North County, or who fled North County's growing diversity a decade ago, talking about how the family-friendly, neighborly neighborhood where I live, where I leave my doors open to the sunshine during the day, where I'm not afraid to walk down my street alone in at night, is the rotten apple about to rot the whole barrel — the source of all St. Louis crime.

Riiiiiiiiiight. That's why I deliberately bought a house here. That's why I continue to live here. Because it's such a terrifying, decayed, crime-ridden hellhole.

(Incidentally, as a matter of anecdotal evidence concerning the terrible, terrible decline of my neighborhood, I have been a victim of street crime or theft in St. Louis City, University City, Maryland Heights, Brentwood and Creve Coeur. I have never been a victim of street crime or theft in Florissant or Hazelwood.)

Seriously, these comments are hurting St. Louis. I shudder to think what people not from the St. Louis region must conclude about people from the St. Louis region when they read comment threads like this on our newspaper's website. But the harm I see goes beyond besmirching our reputation with non-natives (I should say, further besmirching — we're already competing with Detroit for America's Most Dangerous City every year — do we really need trash our image some more?).

I can't help but think that comments like this are only worsening division and mistrust in a community that has long struggled with racial and social tensions, and has long acted, in many ways, more as a patchwork collection of competing small towns than as an urban+suburban metropolis of people facing common challenges and working toward common economic and social goals.

I don't know how things got this way in the Post-Dispatch comments threads. One might expect that a newspaper comment section would have a little more class than a YouTube thread.

Is it that the St. Louis Post-Dispatch was a latecomer to the local social / interactive media scene — late enough that most of the educated, thoughtful St. Louis area consumers of news had already found other places to discuss the stories that mattered most to them, and so by default the Post is left with the internet dregs?

Is it that the STLtoday comment moderation team is not staffed well enough to catch offensive comments quickly, and therefore those who might engage in a more tolerant, intelligent discussion are driven away by the sheer bulk of ignorant and inappropriate dreck?

Should STLtoday use comment moderation and banning with a heavier hand?

I don't know.

As a writer myself, I respect free speech. For years, in fact, I didn't even bother to prescreen comments on my own blog. It was only after a persistent troll kept leaving sexist and racist remarks that served no productive purpose in my comment threads that I threw up my hands and turned on comment approval.

I am sure that the STLtoday staff struggle similarly to balance their respect for freedom of expression with their need to promote civil and constructive community discourse.

I am not sure how the Post-Dispatch can solve this problem. I imagine those who work there would prefer that people such as myself who are dismayed at the lack of constructive intellectual discussion on STLtoday, rather than skipping the comments entirely in preemptive disgust, or, say complaining about the state of the comments on their own blogs, would show up more often in the comment threads, leave thoughtful comments, and try to bring a little dignity to the conversation.

But frankly, whenever I do leave a thoughtful comment on STLtoday, I feel like I'm tossing a shiny pebble into a polluted swamp.

Perhaps if I really want to see things improved there, I should organize my own cleanup crew.


Anonymous said...

I've had the exact same thoughts for months now. Thank you for your post. It is very scary to think that the people that post the garbage in the comments section really exist and are our neighbors.

We share the roads together. We shop together. We go to concerts, games, plays, movies, and restaurants together. We walk past these clowns in public and never know who they are most of the time - the really scary ones are proud of their vile thoughts.


Meredith said...

I think it must be the nature of newspaper comment sections. Our Tennessean has similar problems--but so do the city's free papers.

Newspaper comments are another way that traditional media tries to go "interactive" and fails. Most online entities (forums, blogs, etc) have realized the necessity of someone who can hit the delete button.

Anonymous said...

You absolutely right on this! The comments section have quite often made me very angry, and have really tarnished my impression of the area (I'm not originally from here) such that I'm not sure I want to stay or raise my kids in this social setting. Not because of the "crime" or "creeping racial menace," but because of the STLToday commenters - their apparent lack of civility, morality, intelligence, education, or even common sense skeeves me out. I tried to stop reading, but they're down there taunting me on almost every story. Of course, the Post-Dispatch itself is hardly the world's best paper, but it's trying (I think), and these commenters bring it down.

Me said...

I noticed this as well, but it is not just with our local paper. When my friend's step-daughter was in Mexico, volunteering with a group giving American-presence to witnesses in political trials, she was brutally raped and murdered.

It was picked up by the AP and some of the comments just made my stomach turn. It also amazes me how much time some of the people have to comment on these different news stories. What is even more sickening, is the fact that they think they are the voice of reason and sanity in the situation.

Anonymous said...

Jaelithe, you're going to have to do better than this if you think your post is going to make me mad :) As a matter of fact, I'm happy to know that you care enough about the Post-Dispatch and STLtoday to criticize it.

I have to agree with a couple of your points. And I certainly can't defend some of the sludge that is emitted by the more intolerant who participate on the STLtoday story comments.

I'd love to have the kind of manpower it would take to review all the comments on the site; I'd love better tools with which to manage them. I don't have them.

I am grateful for the many, many people who bother to report the abuses on our site. As you observed -- and thank you for that -- we delete a great many comments as quickly as we can. We review as many comments as possible, and we explicitly ask our readers to report abuse when they see it.

I also agree when you bring up the free speech question. You don't have to watch these comments for very long, especially in the volume that we get them, before you realize that it's very hard to draw clear lines.

We don't want to delete comments just because we don't like what the reader has to say. I'm sure you'd agree that would defeat the purpose the forum. We must quickly draw lines between speech that makes us uncomfortable and speech that actually crosses the line of our guidelines. Is it a personal attack? Is it on topic? Is it truly intolerant, racist, profane.

I can't say we always hit the bullseye, but, again, I'm grateful for people who bother to help us identify the posts where we've missed the mark. I assure you, we review all our abuse reports.

I would take issue with your statement that our comments are "dominated by anti-social pessimists, belligerent misanthropists, racist ignoramuses" and the rest of the misfits you cite.

The word "dominated" gives me pause. On the contrary, I read comments on a lot of stories -- sports, business, entertainment, lifestyle and a lot of news stories -- that do not devolve. They have cogent, thoughtful, challenging remarks. I would say our comments are dominated by a very different type of person than what you've characterized.

I'm not excusing the ones you're mentioning. Certainly, we must pay closer attention to crime stories and stories of that ilk. It is a worthwhile distinction to make.

Finally, I have to say that I think you undermine your argument when you make a baseless suggestion that we're "probably about to go bankrupt." It just feels like a cheap shot.

That said, I do appreciate and agree with a lot of your points. Thanks for expressing them -- and for having the class to point it out to me on Twitter.

Jaelithe said...

Kurt, it wasn't meant as a cheap shot-- it was hyperbole, perhaps, but I was pointing out that I have a hard time criticizing the Post in part BECAUSE I know that the Post, like ALL newspapers, is struggling financially, especially in the current economic climate, and therefore probably cannot afford enough staff and tools to work harder on shaping the discussion in the comment section.

The point was that I feel bad that the Post is struggling (AND that the Post is certainly not struggling alone, and that it's a symptom of a larger problem). I think St. Louis would be a poorer place without a newspaper.

Trust me, as a professional writer myself, I know how difficult it is for writers to make money right now.

It may be true that the comments are not dominated by the crasser class in some of the less controversial parts of the site, but I don't really read those. I despise lifestyle sections on principle (because I've noticed- not at the Post really but elsewhere, in other papers like the NYT- that any story about women in business gets stuck there instead of the business section and it drives me mad).

hibikir said...

It's not just the Post Dispatch I'm afraid, or even the US. I've seen this kind of behavior in comment areas of newspapers in over a dozen countries, in three languages.

My best explanation for the phenomenon comes straight from penny-arcade:

The only way to solve it is to allow the community to police itself, slashdot style: Allow your users to do comment moderation. Then, use your own account to only moderate down the most obvious examples of breaking the TOS, and moderate up some squeaky clean content. The people who disagree with enough of your own moderation are obviously trying to be disruptive, and get their moderation privileges revoked.

There's quite a few sites running systems like that. It has some initial setup costs, but it's the only way to get a community working right without severe moderator involvement.

Steph said...

I so agree! There is nothing worse than mean spirted comments and I especially hate when commenters argue with each other through the comments. I was wondering if anyone else noticed this and I'm glad you brought it up.

This is the first time I've read your blog and I'm enjoying it.

ArchPundit said...

It's not that it came so late to the ballgame. The P-D ran forums for a long time. In fact, Greg Freeman had an excellent forum that maintained itself with decent decorum even after his death. However, over time the sane have been driven away by the insanity on the site.

JT said...

THANK YOU!!! I "Tweet" about this a couple of times a week - I just tweeted your article (in tiny url format). In fact, I wrote my OWN blog post about it and forgot to publish it. Mine is probably not as good as yours, but hey, it gets the point across!

My Twitter acct is "UrbanLivingSTL" if you are interested.

But thank you so much, I forwarded this URL to - the "gen. mgr" of according to the website.


Anonymous said...

To me this isn't endemic to your local paper, but par for the course for 80% of the comments sections anywhere on the web from YouTube to the BBC. Somehow the comments sections of websites unleash the ugliest side of humanity. I'd rather my son see the most brash, violent, sex-driven video on YouTube than read the comments beneath an innocent little backyard happy birthday video.
A moderator is what is needed, but most places won't pay anyone to do that, and leaves it up the overworked, understaffed web team

David said...

My thoughts on a "Way to Smarter, More Respectful Comments":

Anonymous said...

I couldn't agree more, good article. Three years later it doesn't look like STLTODAY commenters have made much progress.

Anonymous said...

and 7 more months later still the same. I've had the same reaction for years and it is a seeming constant.

the hate mongering and outright racism in the comments presents a disgusting minority as the face of our region. Sad.

On a plus note I have to really work now to see the comments, so I'm usually spared.