Shutting down comments on news stories

I believe that a version of the Pareto Principle — the 80-20 rule — applies to goodness in people. That is, 80 percent of the badness comes from 20 percent of the people. In other words, 80 percent of the people are decent and kind and hard-working; 20 percent, not so much.

I thought about that when I read that WRAL shut down comments on news stories on its website. Twenty percent of the people ruined it for everyone.

Fifteen or 20 years ago, I was a supporter of opening comments on stories and blogs. I bought into the idea that readers often knew more than we did, and they could help us find stories and fine-tune stories. I learned this concept quickly in the 90s when, as editorial page editor, I routinely faced a blank page and thought, “So many people know more about this topic than I do. How do I get this right?”

At the paper, we wanted to create a public square where ideas could be exchanged and debated. A welcoming, safe, civil space. Yes, I bought into that idealistic dream. Naive, now, but then, it was exciting.

In the beginning, reporters would occasionally complain to me about holier-than-thou commenters who didn’t understand journalism. Commenters often made suggestions that were well-meaning, but unrealistic or uninformed or sarcastic. I’d respond to the reporters that they should look past their egos and try to understand the commenter’s point. And we often heard positive things from readers.

Soon, trolls found us. Then we shut down comments on stories about crime and about race. We were getting less and less helpful information.

Toward the end of my time at the paper, I’d occasionally tell reporters not to read the comments on their stories. My sense was that the 20 percent had driven the 80 percent away.

From WRAL’s announcement: “Comment threads have become overwhelmed by trolls and anonymous contributors who too often hijack comment threads with offensive and inappropriate submissions, in clear violation of commenting guidelines. The effort to police comments takes our staff away from the core mission of reporting on local news.”

And the truth is, comments on stories aren’t needed any longer. There are also plenty of avenues to debate issues and talk with journalists that weren’t available 15 years ago. Social media abounds with debates, some civil, some not. Want to reach out to a specific journalist? It’s not difficult to talk with them on Twitter or Facebook, and easy to email them.

Now, I’ve done a total 180. I tell students not to read online comments on their work. The detriments — depression, insults, sexism, racism — far outweigh any benefits. The 20 percent have ruined it for the 80 percent.

Then, just as I posted this, I saw this tweet. (I’ve deleted the Twitter name because the person’s account is private.) So, there’s still work to do.