Thursday, September 12, 2013

No comment

Newspaper comments. Can't live with 'em, can't live without 'em. While I don't believe I've ever left a comment to a newspaper article, I'm definitely guilty of sometimes heading straight for the comments of some lifestyle journalism, before/instead of reading the piece itself. Newspaper comments are, I find - although no one else does, or wants to admit it - endlessly fascinating. But should I not think this?

Miss Self-Important takes issue with journalists who cite 'some Daily Mail reader' as a source. While I see her point, I'd be a bit more forgiving. First off, in both articles MSI links to, actual verifiable humans are also quoted, so fears of the demise of the craft might be overstated. Also, while comments don't tell us the same thing as interviews, they may tell us something, and the something they tell us may be as useful as interview-gotten material, where the interviewee, though verifiable, is biased by the fact of being interviewed by a journalist.

Different sources require different kinds of skepticism, though, so if an article presents a newspaper commenter as more verified than they really are, that's a problem. A commenter who claims to be a student at a particular school may have never been in the same country as that school, a drawback one avoids if conducting interviews on a campus. From this, it should be clear that any 'information' one gets from commenters is not to be taken as definitive. But if what you're looking for is more the range of public opinion on some issue, and it's an issue too specific to have been addressed in any survey (not that those are flawless, either), or no one's speaking openly, are comments really so terrible as a place to look? Popular opinion may lead to learning facts, or be interesting in and of itself.


Petey said...

As President of the Debating Society of NYU Abu Dhabi, I beg to differ. Commenters are almost always AI robots designed by computer science students with too much time on their hands.

One can safely ignore them. It's sorta like Facebook.

Miss Self-Important said...

"where the interviewee, though verifiable, is biased by the fact of being interviewed by a journalist"

Well, yeah. It's journalism, not opinion polling. If you want "the range of public opinion on some issue," then you do a public opinion poll, which requires surveying a large number of verifiable members of whatever demographic whose opinions you wish to solicit. Quoting unattributed comments left on the internet is not any more indicative of broader public opinion than quoting an interview subject who know's he's talking to a reporter. Both approaches suffer from selection bias, and neither resulting comment is necessarily more reflective of a person's true considered opinions, although I'd certainly be more inclined to try to articulate my positions more thoughtfully to a reporter than to an anonymous internet forum, where I know I'll never have to take responsibility for what I say.

Also that second article, the one about HBS, was lazy journalism squared. The real people they quoted were the same people from the original article. Evidently, they couldn't be bothered to do any legwork at all. I think even the Maroon has higher standards than that.

Phoebe said...


My point is that newspaper comments and journalistic interviews have different pros and cons, and that even if the former are overall stronger, there are certain types of information the latter might be best for. Most obviously, if one wants to learn what's really thought about Group X, although there's of course the caveat that over-the-top bigoted comments could be hoaxes. (The subtle ones - the 'I'm not an anti-Semite, I just think Jews control the media' ones - probably are not hoaxes, but you never know.) One can kind of exploit the fact that many people have no sense of the scale of the audience they're addressing - viewing their own online communities, including comments to newspaper articles, as private - and use comments - tentatively - to see what sorts of things people discuss behind closed doors.

As for the business school series, is it so abnormal at the Maroon or the Times for two related articles to interview the same people? I agree that it's not ideal, but I'd think the standards would be different for a months-of-reporting kind of essay (NYT mag, New Yorker, etc.) than a not-originally-planned follow-up to a regular newspaper article.

Miss Self-Important said...

"One can kind of exploit the fact that many people have no sense of the scale of the audience they're addressing...and use comments - tentatively - to see what sorts of things people discuss behind closed doors."
Maybe, but when we speak behind literal closed doors, we are still identifiable to the people with whom we speak. I'm not sure which version of ourselves - the identifiable and therefore responsible, or the anonymous - is more genuine or truthful. Maybe my disembodied internet troll self is the True Me, while the whispering gossip over the phone in my bedroom is a Less True Me. But I'm not sure it's quite accurate to call these contexts identical.

But in either case, where does journalism come in? It doesn't claim to know or report on our innermost thoughts, does it? At least, not unless we personally are people of particular political significance. (Otherwise it should be permitted to wiretap my phone and publish my bedroom gossip as part of its mission. Then they'd know what was said AND who said it.) Nor does journalism claim to be an especially statistically accurate aggregate public opinion tracker. The fact that there IS aggregate public opinion about things is not quite news, and certainly the fact that a news article they wrote generated opinionated responses is not news. But that's what that HBS article was - the lede, in which the newsworthiness of a story is demonstrated, claimed that the NYT had published a story, and the story had generated internet comments, and that in itself is newsworthy.

It seems like what you're saying is that anonymous internet comments have some useful purposes for people who want to know what other people think. That may be so. But do those purposes coincide with the purposes of newspapers?