When NPR shut down its user comment line in 2016 it missed a major opportunity

Summary

NPR’s comment line was obviously troubled when it was shut down in 2016. But there had been no  guidelines for contributions to it. Nor were significant corrections made when abuses began clogging the system. As the premier U.S. public radio news network I suggest that NPR should have taken on a generic problem facing comment lines nationally – especially for news media. Rather than giving up it should have developed strategies and led in raising national standards for comment lines. I suggest it can be successful if it readdresses the problem in a new comment line.

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History: On August 23, 2016 National Public Radio shut down its comment line. According to a statement by NPR’s ombudsman (Jensen, 2016) NPR took this action after reviewing  statistics showing that in July 2016 there were 491,000 comments from only 19,400 commenters. Letting cliques of users treat NPR’s site like a personal chat line was clearly not tolerable.

NPR statements: NPR claimed it lacked money for moderators and that other news programs had taken similar action. It suggested social media like Facebook might be better sites for discussion. I find these arguments inexcusably superficial. They overlook the rhinoceros in the room: is it a good thing for the federally supported, premier U.S. public radio network to eliminate opportunities for meaningful public comment and discussion?

Sure, viewers can send an email to NPR program managers or hosts, getting a form response like “thank you for your expression of opinion”. But let’s be realistic. Most people with meaningful things to say will no more choose to waste their time sending mail to faceless administrative staff than to participate in the earlier comment line – degraded as it became by trivial input or worse. Lack of meaningful input through NPR’s current contact addresses may lead program managers to assume that there little need or useful value in reopening channels for public comment. Wrong!

I don’t say NPR has the same policies as the Lenya.ru, a leading Russian radio program that delivers sanitized news and commentary. However, it now shares a no-public-input  policy with the Russian program.

Critical omissions: NPR placed no limits on contributors. Ombudsman Jensen reported that in June and July of 2016 4,300 commenters contributed an average 145 comments apiece! Correction of this kind of problem could be straightforward: Kojo Nnamdi’s WAMU radio interview show from Washington D.C. limits comments to one a month. It doesn’t require live moderators to monitor comment frequency. That can be done by software.

Neither did NPR provide clear guidelines for contributors, e.g. stating  priority for comments offering corrections, alternative arguments, new information, or personal experience. Expressions of gut-level opinion can be found on a vast number of web sites. On NPR’s website such expressions add no value. On the contrary, they guarantee that though many people may be attracted by the site (NPR recorded 33 million unique users in July 2016) people with meaningful things to say will not read or contribute to the comments line. As with repeat commenters, software could go far to screen out brief, crude posts or, say, a report about a sick cat.

When problematic posts began to clog the system NPR leadership did not take meaningful action. It apparently learned nothing from 2016 because in March 2018 NPR also ended its Science Commentary Blog (Jensen, 2018).

Yes, it’s a widespread problem: Ombudsman Jensen was right in referring to other news sites that had dropped comment lines. One of the early sites to take this action was Popular Science (2013). Others are CNN, NBC, and VOX, It’s not just an American problem. Stephen Pritchard, editor of The Guardian, a left of center UK newspaper, wrote in an article that at one point the paper’s comment line ballooned to a hopeless 65,000 emails (Pritchard, 2018). Pritchard said that in the future

“Subjects such as race, immigration and Islam too often attracted toxic commentary, so henceforth they would only have comments open if a moderated, positive debate were deemed possible – one without racism, abuse of vulnerable subjects, author abuse or trolling”.

It appears that as in the case of NPR The Guardian did not have strategies in place to minimize “toxic” posts and chose to give up on an open comments line.

A perceptive Australian economic blogger describes toxic comments as a problem of incentive structure (Murphy, 2015):

For some idiot with anti-social views, this is his one chance to get his views amplified. The pay-off here is high. Normally he can’t get anyone to listen. But if he quickly writes something inflammatory, he can spend a happy afternoon jousting with people he made angry.

Murphy advocates the solution used by Reddit (Wikpedia, 2018), an American website that features aggregated websites on a variety of subjects. Its solution to undesirable comments is to have up or down votes. Up votes will raise the visibility of comments. Down votes will lower it and 5 down votes extinguishes a comment.

There are two problems with Reddit’s approach for more thoughtful news and commentary sites. Popularity has never been a reliable criterion for vision in statesmen or quality in comments on complex or controversial issues. Abraham Lincoln was widely reviled in 1863. Further, the Wikipedia article describing Reddit notes that the site requires significant effort from moderators.

NPR’s leadership responsibility and opportunity: There’s no getting around the fact that contemporary public response to comment lines of serious news and commentary media is often problematic. Crude or thoughtless comments not only drive away thoughtful readers. They can add to an unrealistic sense of social chaos and fragmentation because respondents attitudes may disproportionately reflect attitudes held by radical fringes not representative of the majority of audiences.

In my view the first thing needed is for program managers to openly address the realities. In seeking to restore a comment line they need to call on listeners for input on guidelines and to help make the opportunity to present comments  substantive and useful. Relatively simple and cheap measures can filter out a large proportion of posts that don’t meet stated standards. However I also suggest that even contributors of coarse or trivial posts should be treated courteously and invited to come back in the future, taking advantage of constructive suggestions. 

Another measure to attract useful comments may be a category for superior comments. Meaningful posts too long to meet normal guidelines may emerge if more serious and knowledgeable individuals begin to be attracted. Instead of simply cutting off their inspirations, contributors who go past standard length limits could provide summaries that will be posted on the main site while the full comment can go to a special address. Such comments might involve documentation for alternatives challenging ideas of commentators or guests. I often find that talk shows nominally featuring “both sides” of controversial issues overlook important factors. This may be a way to get these into the discussion.

No doubt, robust comment systems need managers committed to bringing in valuable input from the public. Why give up and say they are unaffordable? I argue that a first-rate comment line could enhance the value of NPR and provide a model that may help upgrade comment lines more generally. Wouldn’t that be a worthy goal for National Public Radio? PBS gets support for ambitious programs from a large group of wealthy individuals and foundations. Would not the prospect of restoring meaningful public comment to NPR attract culturally oriented foundations or organizations like the Pew Trust?

REFERENCES

Jensen, E. (2016, August 17, 2016). NPR website To Get Rid Of Comments. Retrieved from https://www.npr.org/sections/ombudsman/2016/08/17/489516952/npr-website-to-get-rid-of-comments

Jensen, E. (2018). Shifting Opinions: NPR Ends Science Commentary Blog.

Murphy, J. (2015, 2015/09/14). Thomas the Think Engine. from https://thomasthethinkengine.com/2015/09/14/the-problem-with-online-comments-solved/

Pritchard, S. (2018, Jan. 13, 2018). The Observer: The readers’ editor on… closing comments below the line, The Guardian. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/mar/27/readers-editor-on-closing-comments-below-line

Wikpedia. (2018). Reddit. from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reddit