proceed with caution. love, captain obvious

I’d been warned.

But I did not heed the warning: do not look at comments posted about your news stories. I’ve heard various incarnations of this statement, and yet…and yet, I do view online feedback.

With trepidation.

Sometimes it’s helpful. Sometimes, it’s encouraging.

And sometimes it makes me want to throw down my pen computer in disgrace, hide under the covers, and emerge in 20 years. Rip van Nads. In the days before my forays into journalism, I viewed online comments as a sort of cross-section of reader opinion, and I was interested in what people had to say, the arguments they’d get into and what they wanted to know more about. I was entertained.

But now, I might disagree with myself. I’m not sure comments are helpful or representative. Forums aren’t really a cross-section at all — they’re more like using a magnifying glass when an x-ray is needed. I think the only forum for some folks’ frustration is online — and off they go. Commenting on the issues presented in a story is one thing, but personally responding to or ridiculing the writer on a newspaper’s website is…troubling. And petty.

But it’s not that simple.

What is a writer to do? After all, we are writing for our audience…our words don’t simply disappear into the ether (we hope). Otherwise, what’s the point? Isn’t feedback important? If readers care enough to respond, shouldn’t their opinions matter? And don’t we, as writers, want to produce pieces readers will enjoy?

I’ve always valued criticism. In my dancing years, I found constructive feedback to be more useful than praise. Yes, it’s nice to know when you’ve done something well — especially after a performance! — but unless you strive for mediocrity, it’s even nicer when someone can help make improvements. Just as you can’t toss data disproving your hypothesis, you can’t accept the positive comments and ignore the negative ones. The bad and the good go together…

…if you choose to open Pandora’s online forum.

So, for your enjoyment and in an effort to poke fun at some of my own fumbles, I donned protective armor and bushwhacked my way through thorny online commentary in search of some prickly comments. In all honesty, I find many of these funny or just plain whack (like #2)…others might have a point.

A. From today’s story about whale-tale identification:

1. “Any other info, stater of the obvious? Maybe you can regale us with the fact they’re real fat, have big heads and eyes, not to mention giant muscles, and the fact they could kill you if they wanted. Are they always wet? Did you get a chance to shake their flukes and give a good ol’ tree hug? …..” [it goes on…and was just deleted from the site. hmm.]

2. “Apparently, baby reporter is clicking on icons. Not very professional, my dear.”

B. From a weather story:

3. “Fall colors in this area, is that meant to be a joke.” …?

Nope. I mean, it’s not like we’re in New England or anything, but still:

I took that photo on Friday. In this area.

C. From the mountain lion story:

4. “Great story Nadia!. How’s your sister?”  [she’s quite well]

5. “Every one just now wants to understand the mountain lion or the cat? LOL! You’ve got to be kidding??? This has got to be one of the funniest thing I have read….” [sic, sic, sic, sigh]

D. From the lost dog story:

6. “Another heart warming puff piece by the corporate owned Sentinel to push for electronic tagging of every animal and soon humans.”

E. From my first-day-on-the-job story:

7. “But, revisionist history is at work. That and shoddy Senile reporting.”

Of course, there are more.

But I will open the issue to comments (for real!) as I’m interested to hear what the rest of you think about this. I’m also vaguely remembering something Alexis Madrigal said to us about how he deals with comments — forums are “like a dinner party,” right? The rude peeps are booted and the polite ones — even those who disagree — are invited to stay. Maybe somebody can help me out with reproducing that analogy…

…comment away!

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11 Responses to proceed with caution. love, captain obvious

  1. Keith R. says:

    I’d be happy to screen your comments if you would do the same for me. All of a sudden, that would make it not difficult at all to take them in.

    We can separate them into categories before sending over a summary: “warm fuzzies,” “constructive criticism,” “off topic,” and “says more about the commenter than about you.”

  2. danielleventon says:

    I’d also say that the faceless aspect of the Web lets people vent opinions they would never dream of saying to your face. I doubt they realize that a real, live person with sensitivities is on the other end of their rantings.

    • nadia drake says:

      That’s true. A few of the newspaper websites in the Bay Area (the San Jose Mercury News, for example) are trying a new comment system requiring people to post comments through their facebook profiles if they want their response to show beneath a story. Otherwise, there’s a large central repository for anonymous comments that isn’t so easy to navigate. What do you think?

  3. Paul says:

    My feeling is that how you proceed depends on why you want comments in the first place.

    Do you want people to feel involved in a conversation? Do you want to “crowd source” questions your readers and have others find reading those comments useful and/or like a continuation of the story? Do you want reader feedback? Do you want to respond to or have discussions with anyone in the comments?

    My feeling is that if you really want open discussions then you need to allow for anonymity. That means tolerating the process of filtering out the wacko or less-than-civil comments, or just letting it all fly and trusting others to do their own filtering.

    • nadia drake says:

      …you definitely have a point with the anonymity/open discussion thing. Honesty and truth are key. But I think it needs to be clear in such situations that vigorous curating of online boards will occur… just to keep people (and discussions) polite.

      And I definitely enjoy having discussions here! 🙂 And would in other places as well.

  4. Ryan says:

    What about responding, either to the comments as a whole or particular commenters, like you do here? Some news organizations, especially smaller ones like hyperlocals but even giants like ESPN, encourage their writers to address the comments as a way to engage readers. I’m not a huge fan myself because I’d like to avoid a back-and-forth, he-said, she-said conversation. But I can see the benefit – commenters are often surprised you took the time to respond and can even apologize. They think they can just drop a comment bomb and walk away, and commenting on your own work can be a good way to hold people accountable for what they say and kind of police your story. For some reason, many Sentinel commenters always want to blame everything on illegal immigrants. I’m surprised none of the commenters found an illegal-alien angle for the whale story.

    • nadia drake says:

      They found an illegal-lion angle…made me laugh. 😉

      And I would love to respond to commenters and hold them accountable, just as I hold myself accountable for what I write. I’d love to engage those who post thoughtful replies. Or respond with clarification when necessary.

      But getting into he-said, she-said would be all sorts of bad, and is definitely a potential pothole.

      Have you commented on your own stories? How’d it go?

  5. Ryan says:

    I had to do it this summer for a story I wrote on medically unqualified commercial drivers when my editor made me respond to angry osteopathic doctors. It was nice on one hand, because I got to defend myself. It was not so nice on the other, because it wasn’t good enough for them. Oh, well. One of the guys I worked with last fall on a site called Richmond Confidential would comment on every comment. He didn’t mind responding harshly to readers, either. Here’s an example:

    • nadia drake says:

      That’s a great link. Thanks!

      I don’t know… seems like engaging in honest dialogue with readers (even the critical ones) can’t be a bad thing…right?

      Hope the osteopaths left you alone 😉

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