Editorial: On the difficult decision to remove the comments section

Photo by Lincoln Beddoe/iStock/Getty Images Plus, St. George News

OPINION — Many readers have probably noticed – and many of you have specifically asked about – the fact that the comments section at the end of St. George News articles has been missing the past few weeks. This was not by accident, and in your emails to us, some of you have hit the nail on the head as to our motivations for removing them.

Back in November, I penned a column as a member of the St. George News editorial board that raised a question to our readers on a topic that had been circulating around our newsroom for years: Is there a benefit to an anonymous comments section on our news site?

Read more: Let’s talk about … the comment section and if it currently serves any purpose

I won’t rehash all of my thoughts on the issue here, because that editorial was really only to introduce the question. And after that, my responsibility was to listen to our readers (but please do take the time to read the editorial if you haven’t already).

At the beginning, the response was mixed. While some felt the comments section was a good way to get a feel for your average person’s take on the news, others told us that the level of vitriol and disrespect was only enhanced – and not for the betterment of discourse – by the anonymity. I could understand all of these viewpoints, and many readers shared our editorial board’s sense of being on the fence when it came to this difficult question.

With intentions that were idealistic but perhaps naïve, I leaned toward the side of leaving the comments intact at that point – but with stricter moderation. And so we decided to let them ride. As I mentioned in my editorial, this has been a long-running topic of concern around our newsroom, so we wouldn’t rush this move.

Unfortunately, the political atmosphere in our country has grown progressively more divisive over the past several months, and it seems that civility, or even a genuine attempt to persuade someone with whom you disagree, has fallen more and more by the wayside with each step – or misstep – by any number of the perceived sides lining up and claiming to have “The Answer.”

It is a lack of civility that has seemingly spread beyond the political scope into many social interactions. And it is a tendency that is undeniably aggravated when someone doesn’t have to put their name on their opinion.

Do those comments still represent a view of the community, as some readers have suggested? Maybe, maybe not. Maybe they’re trolls just looking to get a rise out of others who have demonstrated they are easily riled.

But at best, they rarely advance good discourse, and for those of us tasked with moderating these comments, it seems like the past few months have been less about “Which comments do we think continue the conversation started in the article?” so much as “Which comments aren’t just outright insulting?” Attempts to find – or heaven forbid, acknowledge – a little middle ground in the comments forum have been rare, as opposed to commenters just trying to outlast the others to get the last word.

I’m not saying we all have to get along and like each other. That’s not realistic, nor is it necessarily productive. And while it’s unfortunate that it seems like some of us just have to outright hate each other, I won’t make this bigger than it has to be. We’re not going to try to solve all the world’s problems here in this discussion of the comments section.

But when it comes to the world’s problems, the comments section doesn’t seem to be helping so much as hindering these days. It’s a lot easier to be hateful – whether toward a fellow commenter, community member or those who hold a particular belief system – when you don’t have to put your name on it.

When we made the decision to suspend the comments section and gauge the reaction, it was interesting to see the response this time as opposed to four months ago. As we have watched over the past month, more readers messaged us to express sentiments consistent with our own: It was time. And we’re not alone, as several websites have eliminated their comments section, from the Atlantic to The Blaze, ESPN to NPR and more.

And the reality is, we’re not shutting down all discussion. There is always our Facebook page, which provides its own form of comment moderation – primarily just for language, but we also watch for inappropriate content – and perhaps more importantly, you get to see the members of the community who are making these (often inflammatory) statements.

You want to call someone a libtard or insult President Trump? You think we should take everyone’s guns, or maybe put an assault rifle in every home? Should it be marijuana for recreation? Medicine? Or just for criminals? Save every tortoise, or pave right over them? Build that wall? Or tear them all down?

Whatever your two cents, take the conversation to Facebook, where you can be as passionate as you want – shy of spewing profanities – and be proud of who you are and what you stand for.

And of course, you can always send a letter to the editor at [email protected].

Just make sure you put your name on it.

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @STGnews

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2019, all rights reserved.

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