All is fair in love and online comments, but don't let it get ugly


I KNOW I’M NOT alone among columnists who scrabble around for subjects, then poke, criticise, crack some weak jokes, stick their email addresses at the end and send their pieces to print only to open their emails the next morning and pause at the YOUR COLUMN yelling from the inbox. One clicks on that email with the trepidation of a bomb-disposal officer not quite sure if he shouldn’t cut the red wire instead of the blue.

In my experience, journalists can be pretty thin-skinned, particularly journalists whose job it is to dish out criticism. They are driven to put their words and opinions in print but are genuinely worried what people might think should they actually read the thing.

The one-way nature of the conversation has long been held up as a line between traditional and digital media: the former pronounces, according to this theory, but the latter converses. In fact, there has long been engagement between journalists and readers – via letter or phone and the now familiar email address – but it has been limited. Most journalists working in traditional media in Ireland do not, on the whole, engage with their readers, or dive into the discussion-board threads that might be sparked by their work.

There are practical reasons – time constraints, work pressures – as well as moral ones, such as wanting to report rather than commentate. But there is also a natural, and understandable, reluctance on the part of many columnists to get involved in lengthy, messy discussions in comment threads. They’ve written their 800 words. That’s where it ends.

Not any more. Or, at least, it doesn’t have to end there. This week, The Irish Times followed many publications in changing its online-comments policy from premoderation to postmoderation. Previously, comments were approved before publication; now they go up first and readers join journalists as moderators. If a comment is flagged as inappropriate by users, it is hidden until an Irish Times moderator decides if it should stay or go.

There is a new openness of identities, too, as commenters must first register through LinkedIn, Facebook or Twitter, each of which, to a varying degree, has ushered people away from anonymity on the web. It won’t prevent pseudonyms – often justified in a discussion – but the new approach, online editor Hugh Linehan explained, “elevates the level of discourse”. Added to that, The Irish Times has a new set of community standards as a guideline for readers.

And if that reads like a corporate broadcast, you can now register your annoyance at the end of the column.

The opening up of comment is not novel, but it does pose a challenge to journalists as to where their own limits of engagement lie. For what it’s worth, and without generalising from my experience (well, just a bit), here is my experience of how it has worked through other channels.

Through emails, encouraged at the end of this column each week, most correspondents are thoughtful and civil, even when in disagreement.

Occasionally, something more straightforwardly insulting will arrive. If I reply, the sudden appearance of a real-life person often shocks the complainant into civility. It’s as if the original email had been aimed at a target rather than sent to a person.

On blogs, there is a sense of it being the blogger’s space and, on The Irish Times, as a side room of the main paper. The tone is set by the journalist, and those who read it tend to do so because it’s the kind of thing they like to read. You don’t get too many casual passers-by. Over time, it can develop into something of a community, although with the blogger setting the topic and having the loudest voice. Their getting involved in discussion is vital; knowing when to admit they’re wrong even more so.

Twitter is a mix of these two. If someone follows you, it’s not usually so they can chuck abuse at you. That you are directly addressing someone, even so publicly, appears to act as a civilising factor. There are exceptions. A couple of weeks ago, someone tweeted to me about how dull my column was. It was the only tweet he had ever sent. I like to think he was saving it up just for me.

At this point, I should point out that I have one advantage when it comes to attracting civility: I am not female. Women journalists and bloggers each have stories of the almost casual nature of the abuse they receive, some gender-specific, some clearly related to it (about their clothes, appearance, body). Most male columnists won’t Google themselves and find online discussion about their looks rather than their opinions.

And so, as The Irish Times opens up its comments system more widely, readers of this column will have another avenue through which to comment. The choice for me is to let that happen in isolation or to treat it as a starting point for an ongoing discussion. So, I’m here all week. Try the veal.


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