Reader comments – making your point without being an ass

Sometimes, you have to spell it out and remind people how to behave.

Especially, it seems, when it comes to commenting on stories online.  I like how the Eastern Iowa Gazette (former stomping grounds of Steve Buttry) has posted ‘Rules of Engagement‘ for its commenters. Major points include:

Be truthful.
Be civil.
Be responsible.
Leave the trolls alone.
Take commercial ads elsewhere.
Know that comments will be moderated.

And, the reader is warned, if they fail to comply with these rules – their posts are taken down.

Take a look at those rules. There’s nothing unreasonable.

They are, in fact, a reminder to be human. To make a point without shouting in ALL CAPS, telling someone they’re fat or stupid, or reading far too much into something they’ve Tweeted (all three have happened to yours truly.)

I am a huge fan of news organizations being transparent about their reader commenting policy.  Where I work, we have an FAQ for readers wondering about our comments.

I’m not the only one concerned with the quality of comments. USA Today announced it was moving to a Facebook commenting system:

Beginning Tuesday, Nov. 29, we will replace our current system with commenting from Facebook. Once the change takes effect, you will need an active Facebook account to submit comments on the site, but it will be your choice to post the comments to your wall. If you don’t want your comments to show up on Facebook simply uncheck the box when you add your comment.

It’s no surprise that we’ve found the best comments from readers on our Facebook accounts, where folks have an identity attached. You can’t be ‘Guest McGuesterson’ (unless you go to a whole lot of trouble.)

A lot of online news readers tell me they don’t bother reading comments, because, so often – they are habitat for trolls.

That’s a shame – because I’m genuinely interested in what readers think about our stories. Everyone brings a different perspective, and by sharing their point of view, we all learn more about the story.

I’m not by any means saying we have to agree. By all means, the more you disagree, the more interesting the discussion. But it is possible, heck it’s downright essential, that we be civil.

Otherwise reader comments degenerate into a seething, spewing snakepit.

Lincoln Mullen, a PhD student in American History at Brandeis University, recently blogged on ‘How to Disagree with Civility.”

Mullen notes: “What is needed to advance the work of the academy is disagreement with civility: disagreement to get closer to the truth or to the answer to problems, and civility to maintain dignity and respect for everyone joined in a common enterprise.”

Although Mullen is referring to academic disagreements, the same could be said for reader comments. Mullen has five practices he tries to employ when disagreeing with someone. Here’s one I think a lot of readers – and journalists – should keep in mind:

… skip the small stuff. Avoid disagreeing over the trivial parts of your opponent’s position, and instead focus on the telling points. The devil, and not a civil disagreement, is in the details. Of course, sometimes the details are not trivial.

I have two small boys, and maybe it’s because of this that I don’t have a lot of time for rudeness.

But I understand the fun in pounding keys when angry. It feels good to let off steam. But  remember, there’s a person you’re lashing out at, and not just words on a screen.

So when you decide you need to comment or dispute someone’s point online – pretend you’re actually saying it to a real person standing in front of you.  Would you talk like that to their face?

The more civilly used to make your point, the more respected you’ll be when you make future comments… and the better a reader comments section will become. I honestly think we can learn something of value from each other. I think we can be better than a snakepit.

So please. Resist the urge to be an ass.

(Photo from Little Treasures of Britain)

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