The filth of the comments section

It’s pretty common knowledge around the Internet that if you want to continue having a good day, don’t read the comments.

It doesn’t matter if it’s a cat video on YouTube, a cooking blog, or a CNN story about the president, the comments section will inevitably devolve into chaos. Someone will find something terrible to say. Someone will find a way to be racist. Someone will try to convince you that MY BROTHER WORKS 10 HOURS / DAY FROM HOME AND EARNS $21K A WEEK!

Long story short, if you value your sanity, don’t read the comments.

So then why do we keep peeking at the comments on the news stories we post online?

No matter how hard we try as journalists, we struggle to resist the urge to check the comments on our stories. For some reason, we want to know what ‘the average person’ thinks of our work. And much like the rest of the Internet, the results are never pretty.

For me, it happened on the very first article I published for my college newspaper. My school’s basketball team had just been eliminated from the NCAA Tournament, and I wrote a column about how much the team meant, and how bummed fans were. Later, I saw that someone else had linked to a blog that featured a line-by-line destruction of my column, calling me everything from a hack to a bandwagon fan. All because I was sad the team lost.

And it carried over to my professional work when I got into the TV news business. When I ventured online to check on comments on my stories, I would find arguments, ignorance, racism, and trolling. Stories about gay marriage brought out choruses of “homosexuality is a sin!” or “why is it news when gay people have something to say?” Stories about schools participating in Black History Month were met with comments like “when is White History Month?” Stories detailing the history of an accused murderer were accused by commenters of “exploiting” people, or “giving a voice to a terrible person.”

And those are just comments about the stories themselves! That doesn’t include the personal attacks or snarky remarks. It ranged from the mildly annoying (“the tie tail should never hang lower than the tie front”) to the grating (flubbing a word would mean comments like “why can’t the station hire a 3rd grader who knows how to speak clearly?”) to the hurtful (“That was a hack job. You failed journalism 101”).

From our work to our appearance, we can’t win.

And that’s to say nothing of the pieces I actually wanted to cause a big reaction with. I wrote my fair share of columns and articles looking to create some kind of change. Seek a reaction and you shall receive, though it’s never the one you want. “Sandberg should flunk his ass out of school if he hates it here so much.”

Of course, there’s a flip side to this. You may work for weeks on an in-depth story that you think is important to the entire community, only to see later that no one thought it important enough to comment on.

It’s always going to be a disappointment. So why do we do it?

It’s because journalists create, and they want to know whether the work they create is important. We didn’t get into this business to make videos for ourselves; we got into it so we could make a difference in the world with our talents. Getting confirmation of that can be hard in this industry, when feedback from our superiors can be hard to come by. On the surface, viewing the web comments seems like the easiest way to gauge that.

Easy? Yes. Accurate? No.

If you want to see whether your work is making a difference in the community, get off your computer and go out into the community to see for yourself. Talk to real people and see the results, instead of reading the rants of someone hiding behind a screen name.

Instead, I tell young reporters to scan the comments section, but don’t read them. The main usefulness of news comment sections is to cultivate story ideas or potential sources. There may be dozens of hateful comments on your article about an accused murderer, and a single comment from the person’s son, who is willing to go on camera and speak. You could stumble into an off-topic argument that’s hundreds of messages long, but buried among it could be the nugget that leads you to a bigger scoop. I’ve been able to find family members, get inspiration for follow-up stories, and be pointed toward relevant legal documents thanks to the comments section.

It’s like finding a diamond ring in a pile of sewage.

The comments sections are often disgusting places, and it’s probably best to avoid them. But if you do decide to wade into the filth, do it for a professional reason, and be sure to protect your feelings in an airtight bag.

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