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Opening (or closing) Pandora’s Box


Why online comment and discussion policies are integral

By Megan Fromm

Last month, Popular Science, an online news magazine dedicated to all things techie, scientific, and often futuristic, decided it was closing the comments section for new online articles.

Staff members argued that in some cases, comments were bad for science, especially when the nature of online reader responses keeps writers from “fostering lively, intellectual debate …[and] spreading the word of science far and wide.”

Not surprisingly, the magazine relied on empirical research that shows just how poorly an influencer public opinion can really be when it comes to science, and they defended their position succinctly:

“If you carry out those results [of the studies] to their logical end–commenters shape public opinion; public opinion shapes public policy; public policy shapes how and whether and what research gets funded–you start to see why we feel compelled to hit the “off” switch.” –Popular Science

Comment sections can be a tremendous boon for online news media. They allow readers to interact with staffers, critique news coverage, correct errors, or even offer interesting story ideas. In a perfect world, an online comment or discussions board (whether for each article or for the site as a whole) would help your news organization develop a strong rapport within your scholastic community.

As online media strives to create spaces for significant interaction between those writing the news and those responding to it, long-term consideration must be given to how those interactions are shaped, facilitated and moderated.

Just as newspapers have staff policies for readers who want to submit letters to the editor, online news media should also have clear and accessible guidelines regarding their comments and discussion sections. These policies might include guidance on the following:

  1. The intended purpose of your comments/discussion section.
  2. Whether comments on your site are moderated, and why.
  3. If so, who monitors what gets posted?
  4. Whether readers must provide identifying information before they can comment.
  5. What types of language/content is not acceptable?
  6. How can readers  flag responses for moderator review or to be taken down?
  7. Will the website take down comments, and for what reasons?
  8. Can readers expect the writers of the story to respond to reader comments?

These are just a few questions that should be considered when using reader comments to facilitate interaction on your website.  And while Popular Science may have decided that comments weren’t the right approach for their website, consider how encouraging civil reader feedback from your community could build trust and encourage consistent relationships with the very people you cover most in your scholastic news media.





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