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A foundational principle of American journalism has been that readers can give feedback on stories to voice opinions, point our errors or just continue the conversation. Traditionally, this happened through letters to the editor — and when stories went online, it made sense for the comments to go there, too.

But like most everything else, the internet disrupted this, too.

When Pittsburgh City Paper recently wrote about state health director Rachel Levine, who is transgender, readers responded with comments about her decisions on the COVID-19 pandemic, which is fine. But then they reacted with hate speech and vitriol about who she is, which is stupid.

City Paper’s staff initially tried keeping up with the trolls by removing the hateful comments as they appeared, but the pandemic has strained the staff already. Eventually, the newspaper just turned off the comments section on all stories.

That was more than three weeks ago, and the experiment is paying off, news editor Ryan Deto said.

“It has honestly become one of the best editorial decisions we have made in a while,” he wrote to me in an email. “The feedback we have gotten has been overwhelmingly positive, with at least one reader even joining our membership drive because of it.”

Much of the positive response has come from people who said the comments on LGBTQ stories tended to be hateful and transphobic, Deto said, while a few people have registered negative feedback on social media. City Paper can’t stop people from commenting on Facebook, so they still do: The newspaper’s article about turning off comments on articles drew 44 comments on Facebook.

City Paper did not, of course, invent the idea of turning off readers’ comments. Popular Science was among the first major publications to turn off comments in 2013, citing scientific research that even a small number of negative comments can skew readers’ impressions about scientific outcomes.

Locally, the bigger news outlets often get hundreds of comments on controversial stories — and sports.

On KDKA-AM’s Facebook page, any mention of Trump seems to bring many comments from all perspectives, while a recent story about health secretary Levine drew out negative comments about her transgender status. The hateful comments about Levine on a July 16 story about her issuing COVID-19 safety protocols still appeared there days later, with many using her dead name.

Program director Jim Graci did not reply to a request for comment about the station’s policies related to listener comments.

WTAE-TV never has allowed viewers to post to its website, but when it posts articles to Facebook, hundreds of people might reply. Even when the station asked viewers to talk about favorite toppings on national hot dog day, dozens of people answered.

The station has strong filters in place to remove comments that are “offensive, abusive, profane and/or harassing,” and digital staff moderate social media accounts to remove items that “fall into such categories as racism, sexism, slander, body shaming, threats, or sharing of someone’s personal information,” News Director Jim Parsons said.

But at times, newsrooms struggle to keep up with an overwhelming amount of information — and that’s where other readers can help.

“When a story generates a large volume of viewer comments, it is difficult for our staff to manually moderate all of it,” Parsons told me. “We often rely on our viewers to alert us to offensive material, which we will then review.”

When Post-Gazette Executive Editor Keith Burris wrote an editorial defending the newspaper’s treatment of its Black reporters, the story drew more than 550 comments, and when sports columnist Ron Cook wrote about the Rooney Rule, more than 100 people wrote in. Managing editor Karen Kane did not respond to a request for comment.

Similarly, WPXI-TV does not allow comments on its website, but articles posted to Facebook routinely draw hundreds of comments: A story about the federal government’s $600 pandemic unemployment bonus ending drew 925 comments, while a story about the NFL allowing players to wear helmet decals for victims of police violence drew nearly 800.

 

It turns out that readers’ comments apparently do matter. Online incivility among users can polarize other people’s perceptions about emerging technologies, researchers at George Mason University and the University of Wisconsin-Madison found.

“Simply including an ad hominem attack in a reader comment was enough to make study participants think the downside of the reported technology was greater than they’d previously thought,” Popular Science’s online content editor wrote at the time.

Many other national news outlets — NPR, Vice, CNN, Reuters, among many more — have turned off comments over the past several years. Most often, journalists say they are shifting comments to social media, where users can share and discuss stories however they like.

The reality is that news sites already dealing with tight financial budgets and cutbacks often struggle to devote resources to monitor what readers are saying.

“Without moderators or fancy algorithms, [reader comments] are prone to anarchy,” Vice Editor Jonathan Smith told readers when it shut down comments. “Too often they devolve into racist, misogynistic maelstroms where the loudest, most offensive and stupidest opinions get pushed to the top and the more reasoned responses are drowned out in the noise.”

The New York Times addresses the staffing issue by employing a Google algorithm called Moderator. Previously, staffers had been trying to sort through 12,000 reader comments daily by hand.

Many people defend reader comments by citing the founding fathers’ commitment to free speech and the free flow of ideas. In reality, readers often end up commenting on less lofty topics.

The stories that generated the most comments on Facebook last year included an abortion story that PolitiFact deemed false, the story about teenagers who faced off with a Native American Vietnam veteran on the National Mall, and a fake story about Henry Winkler dying (he’s alive).

Whatever your take though, you still can offer it.

As for City Paper, now that it no longer allows comments on articles, it has gone back to the beginning: It plans to resume running letters to the editor.

“We encourage people to email, as it provides an opportunity for readers to connect with our writers and our writers to connect with them,” Deto told me.

Comings & Goings

Pittsburgh lost many notable journalists in recent weeks as the Post-Gazette offered buyouts and 14 employees took them.

They include columnist Brian O’Neill, news editor Steve Sybert, op-ed editor Will Tomer, theater critic Sharon Eberson, photographers Darrell Sapp, Christian Snyder and Michael Santiago, online editor Matt Moret, Washington bureau chief Tracie Mauriello, graphic designer Alexa Miller, and reporters Steve Twedt, David Templeton and Matt McKinney.

Two recent departures of journalists, however, stand out in that crowded and distinguished field:

Paula Reed Ward, a courthouse reporter at the Post-Gazette who has fascinated the city for years with detailed behind-the-scenes crime stories, wrote a heartfelt goodbye to readers, in which she talked about how her ongoing battle with breast cancer has reset her priorities.

Bob Bauder, a former steelworker who became the Tribune-Review’s longtime city hall reporter, announced his retirement — and the city honored him with a day in his name. It’s always remarkable when a hard-hitting reporter leaves the job with the respect of the people he covered.

The founding director of the Center for Media Innovation at Point Park University, Andrew Conte writes the On Media column at NEXTpittsburgh with support from The Heinz Endowments. You can find all of his columns here, and you may reach him at PittsburghPublicEditor@gmail.com