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Comments in Newspaper Websites

I've been researching what might be happening with the notion of wolf hunting in Michigan now that the wolf is off the federal endangered species list. But I'm only doing it in increments of about ten minutes at a time, so I don't really have anything much to say yet, except that there doesn't seem to be a formal movement yet in the state legislature or the Department of Natural Resources (unlike in Idaho, where the legislature appears ready to head out themselves, gun in hand, to shoot them all the minute the wolf goes off the list there).

That's not exactly what I want to write about today, though. As part of my research, I landed on a Detroit Free Press article* published soon after the wolf was de-listed. The new "thing" in newspaper publishing is to put up little comment forums with an article, so the readers can comment. It's good to be interactive, right? Give people more to do, and they'll come to the website more often, yada yada yada. Here's the problem: Most of the commenters were either rabidly anti-wolf or rabidly anti-hunting. There may have been one or two moderate comments but many more were very polarized. "Wolves will kill our children and pets! Wolves decimate deer and elk herds!" Or "Wolves are noble creatures! Hunting is evil and wrong!" After a couple of comments like these, the succeeding comments degrade further into attacks on the commenters. "You're trying to take away my sacred way of life with my gun!" "You're cruel and heartless and inhuman!"

It's worse than an episode of Nancy Grace or Hannity and Colmes, I swear. And I wonder where the journalism is in all this. When did it become "news" to find out what a private individual thinks about something?

Even if someone of the stature of, say, Thomas Sowell or Seymour Hersh wrote a comment to a news article in one of these forums, I wouldn't care. (Well, I'd raise an eyebrow. And I would probably read a whole article under their byline, because they're known for thoughtful opinions based on research and thought.) I certainly don't care what some knee-jerk doofus thinks about most any news article. The one exception: I actually did want to see comments to wolf articles, just to see if they were as ugly as I thought they'd be. (They were.) But if I'm reading in general, I don't care what other readers think. I know that the only ones who comment are the ones with a lot of vitriol, and that's only maybe 10% of the population. That's not going to tell me what the general direction of debate is. It would be newsworthy if a reporter could say that "65 percent of Michiganders support wolf hunting." It's not newsworthy that some putz who doesn't even give a real name does.

Fortunately it's easy to avoid these comments. They're either behind a link or at the bottom of the page. And I'll grant they might be useful if you want to see whether there's something more to see. One of those commenters could've said something like "Thank Jesus that my state legislator is protecting me by introducing a bill to kill all those evil canines" -- then I'd hightail it over to the state legislature's website and get the official scoop. But there was no such information there. No light, just a lot of heat. Apparently heat is supposed to sell news these days.

P.S.: This does not mean that I don't like comments in my LJ, though. :)

* Which I'd link to, except it's old enough that it'll go behind the subscription wall any minute, and it's just an example -- there are hundreds more in almost any newspaper or website these days.

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