On August 17, National Public Radio (NPR) announced that it will remove its comment section from the website. Scott Montgomery, NPR’s digital media editor, took to the publication’s website to explain that “the comment sections on NPR.org stories are not providing useful experience for the vast majority of our users.” According to NPR’s data, of the 79.8 million unique website visitors in the last three months, only an average of 2,600 people have posted one or more comments.
That’s about 0.003 percent.
NPR.org was among the first news websites to introduce a comment section to their articles, but they are not the first to remove them. Since 2014, Recode, Mic, the Week, Reuters, the Chicago-Sun Times, the Verge, the Daily Beast, Popular Science, and Vice’s Motherboard have all disabled their comment sections.
These sites removed comments for similar reasons. They believe that comment sections, on the whole, do not add to the quality of intellectual discussion on the articles. All the sites suggest that, while they respect their readers’ intelligence and opinions, the comment sections have been taken over by a small minority of people who steer the discussion away from smart, thoughtful dialogue. The announcements are often that indirect. Popular Science summarized these concerns more pointedly, writing “…we are as committed to fostering lively, intellectual debate as we are to spreading the word of science. The problem is when trolls and spambots overwhelm the former, diminishing our ability to do the latter.”
For its part, NPR chose against calling readers trolls or spambots. However, it did highlight that regular commenters do not reflect NPR’s audience as a whole. NPR ombudsman Elizabeth Jenkins explained that although some commenters remain anonymous, Google estimates suggest that commenters are 83 percent male, while NPR.org users are only 52 percent male.
Additionally, the American Journalism Review, considered MediaFile’s intellectual grandfather by some, once argued that anonymous comments on news articles can cause legal trouble for outlets and headaches for advertisers.
Social media has also played a role in the death of the comment section. Last year, Nieman Lab interviewed executives in seven news organizations that have turned off comments. Every single one pointed to social media as a more popular and more constructive alternative to comment sections. NPR followed suit. Montgomery claimed that “the audience itself has decided for NPR, choosing to engage much more via social media… rather than in the NPR.org comments section.”
NPR also pointed out that readers were increasingly complaining about the comment section – about comments being deleted, inappropriate comments, and harassment. These reasons, combined with the high cost of paying in-house moderators or third-party comment hosts, have pushed some outlets over the edge.
It is important to note though that plenty of news organizations have left their comment sections in tact. There is still robust debate around the subject.
Admitting comments sections need fixing, Washington Post media columnist and former New York Times public editor Margaret Sullivan disagrees with NPR’s decision:
“I find value in reader comments that can’t be adequately reproduced elsewhere. The argument that the conversation has migrated to Facebook and Twitter is flawed. Those are good places for discussion, but they are no substitute for having discussion take place where the story itself lives. I’m convinced that many smart readers with something to contribute will not follow a story onto social media to talk about it. News organizations should fix online comments rather than ditch them.”
Breitbart, an outlet with a particularly robust comment section, has argued that removing comment sections because they are too inflammatory allows for a double standard. If journalists, particularly columnists or writers at politically-oriented outlets, are allowed to write provocative articles, why are readers, even pugnacious ones, blocked from disagreeing with them? Breitbart also suggested that removing comment sections gives journalists and news outlets too much control over a story’s narrative.
Though perhaps the most explicit, Breitbart is not alone in supporting comment sections. Excepting the ones listed above, most news organizations still allow comments on their online content. Salon colorfully contends that “[comment sections] show us the American id in all its snaggletoothed, pustulant glory, with a transparency that didn’t exist before the Internet. And in its rather twisted way, that’s a public service.”
Moral and ethical arguments aside, there are reasons to think that some comment sections are good for public debate. A study published last year (notably using 2009 data) in The International Journal of Press/Politics analyzed comments on Guardian coverage of the 2009 UN Climate Change Summit. It found that online debates were “often deliberative in nature, and journalists reported that it was positively impacting their practice in several ways, including… enhanced critical reflection.” (Here is a nice Nieman Lab summary of the study.)
There are anecdotal accounts of dynamic, respectful comment sections as well. Ta-Nehisi Coates’ blog for the Atlantic was famed for its incredible comment section. When he began blogging there in 2008, Coates set out to intentionally and thoughtfully engage with his commenters. He amassed several hundred loyal commenters, affectionately known as the Horde, who participated in well-researched and extensive debates. He kept the forum respectful by enforcing strict rules and eventually employing professional moderators.
Yet, this commenting Mecca has fallen. Coates’ posts are now only occasionally open to comments. Coates blames this on the difficulty of maintaining quality moderation and the challenges in getting “people from different perspectives in a place without defaulting to [the] usual conversations.”
Coates’ difficulty mirrors the challenges other news organizations are facing. Certainly, most news and media outlets value freedom of speech, open engagement, and reader feedback. But the costs, both financial and moral, of maintaining this type of platform have become too high. NPR has nixed comments – don’t be surprised if others follow.