Beginning Jan. 1, 2022, The Banner will close the online commenting function on its website. Although readers will no longer be able to leave comments on our online articles, we encourage them to give feedback via letters to the editor. There are two main reasons why we have made this decision.
Lack of Engagement
Our hopes for the online comment function was to foster some sense of online community by sharing ideas and encouragement to one another. This is why our policies on commenting are called “Community Guidelines.” But it is clear that over the years it has failed to achieve that. Very few readers actually use the comment function. And most of the relatively few comments are often negative and confrontational in nature. Hence, instead of fostering community, the online comments only seem to have fueled polarization.
Only a small slice of our readers actually leave comments and most of those leave only one or two comments a year. Over the past 12 months, we have had 384 comments from 157 people, but 32% of these comments were written by just seven people! The year before was similar with 324 comments from 139 people, and four people were responsible for 26% of those comments! Considering that we average about 80,000 online views a month, 157 commenters represent at best only 0.19% of our online readership.
In other words, only a tiny percentage of our online readers use the comment function. And of this tiny group, an even smaller group of individuals—about a handful—account for the bulk of the comments. Clearly, our online comments are not building an online community. Therefore, we have to ask whether it is still worth continuing online comments.
Staff’s Time and Morale
Another factor is that it takes time and energy from staff to monitor and, if necessary, fact-check or even delete comments on a regular basis. Currently, we share the load of monitoring online comments and our social media between two or three staff members—this is in addition to our main tasks and responsibilities. While we might not have been the most vigilant in monitoring our online comments and comments on our social media, especially Facebook, that is because we do not currently have a dedicated staff for these responsibilities.
We have always tried to err on the side of generosity, allowing people’s comments to stand unless they clearly crossed the line. We tried to be fair and objective in regards to policing comments, but that is not always easy. Even with community guidelines, there is a fine line in trying to determine the difference between sharing a valid opinion, even a disagreeable one, and sharing misinformation or disinformation. Trying to determine if a comment has crossed the line has become increasingly difficult over the years. How much energy should we put into fact-checking these comments or figuring out what's fair in the midst of, and in addition to, our already busy work schedules?
And, to be honest, staff also find some of the negative comments discouraging, especially if the critiques seem unfair. Should we spend time and energy responding online, or do we just leave them alone, rather than potentially getting into an online debate with a reader? Having to deal with these recurring questions alone drains energy and distracts us from our main work. But we cannot simply ignore and not monitor comments either. It would be unethical and irresponsible to do so.
We’re Not Alone
This is an increasingly common problem for publishers everywhere these days. Recently, for example, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation has closed comments for its news posts on Facebook. It cited toxic comments and misinformation as the main reasons. Publishers can even be held legally liable for comments written by readers. Australia’s courts recently ruled that publishers are legally liable for allowing libelous comments on their social media platforms, even when those comments are written by readers. One fallout from that court decision is that CNN, the U.S. news network, has restricted Australian readers’ access to its Facebook pages. Things are going to get murkier for publishers in regards to comments in the future.
To be clear, we are only closing comments on our website, not our social media platforms. Readers can still leave comments on our Facebook posts.
Perhaps some will be frustrated by this decision and claim that The Banner is behaving as a propaganda tool because we are not allowing people to disagree by posting their online comments. To be clear, we are not stopping people from fairly criticizing our work. Avid readers of our published letters to the editor (Reply All) will know that we have published both critical and positive feedback to our work. But we have decided to close a function that did not serve its intended goal, is used only by a tiny fraction of our readers, and complicates our staff time, energy, and morale. In the end, we did not think it was worth continuing. As always, we encourage readers to continue to give feedback via emails or letters to the editor.