The case for reading the comments (more than ever)

It´s not a matter of reverse therapy for trolls. It´s about the “pearls of wisdom” that you find among the others and won’t get anywhere else

At a town hall last week I heard that phrase again: “Nah, I never read the comments.” The politician said it, and after he smirked, the audience laughed and gave him a round of applause.

I cannot stress enough how much of a disservice you are doing to whatever you are doing if you are not listening what people have to say to you, especially if you are a public servant. And since I, as a journalist, consider myself in that category, I cannot understand that at this very moment, we allow ourselves to also ignore them. “Because trolls” does not qualify, in my view, as an answer if you are in such position.

Let me explain: It is painfully obvious that most of the comments are offensive or have little to add. I´ve been a journalist for eleven years, so I was essentially born as a professional in the era when comment sections were starting to pop in the digital version of every newspaper. I have also been a social media editor for two years and a half so I know the drill, and what happens to you when you are around that task a certain amount of time.

Digging into the comments section of a national newspaper is a draining, boring, impossible to fully complete task that at some point seems pointless. If your news company tries to do that in Facebook, it´s extra fun: some “readers” will harass others beyond the usual trolling, and at some point, the scene will resemble a square full of children with sugar highs screaming, laughing out loud and going against each other.

The bottom line? It is our responsibility to make something out of that mess.

The point is too simple: as in a square full of children, there´s always going to be the usual bully kid. There’s going to be the usual screaming kid and, for sure, there may be kids that empower those guys when they go after someone. Is it fully possible to put some order in a square full of children? Hardly, I may say. But as in life, not everyone is in the place for doing that, and those are the ones who should not be ignored.

Guess what: there are a still increasing amount of people who are entering (or reentering) the news experience using social media who actually want to engage with media in another way. I saw it: in a few months of trying to moderate at least an hour of the posts of every story we made at El Observador, some good things came up: a tip, a good input about the angle of a coverage that we have done, a proposal of a subject to be covered. And yes, they were like probably a 0,2% of all the comments traffic that came to the page, but why ignore it? Last week, when social journalist Allen Arthur came to class to talk about those “pearls of wisdom” that you can (actually, must) find in groups or pages the idea came to my head once again.

When I see media CEOs speaking about (patronising voice) “the importance of paying attention to the reader” and after checking their facebook pages seeing that those are not minimally moderated, I immediately know that they don’t have an idea of what they are talking about. We still think that the tools, the technology, came to solve all our problems by itself. Because we have a big problem: lots of people don’t trust us, so lots of people don’t read us, they don’t make contact with what we do.

Trust is something that you earn. This is not anymore something that is automatically given to you because of your history, or the credentials of your journalists. Not even if you are The New York Times. A Facebook channel needs rules, and someone that enforces them, that engages with readers and shows them that he wants them in that space. They should know that while it may be impossible to make of that page a troll-free area, there is someone trying to listen to what people needs to say about a fact or about the coverage that the organisation does.

I always tell that story of the reader who accused us of conspiring and insulted me, my family and all my colleagues at the paper to whom I asked what we have done wrong. The conversation ended not just with a (good) tip, but also with a declaration of love: this guy used to read us frequently and cared about the paper as a whole. That was the seed of our experience with Hearken that prove to me that the field is opening for new types of interactions with readers, something that also The Coral Project is trying to experiment with.

But The Coral Project will not invent a tool that solves it all with pushing a button, nor Facebook will do it. Unless we as journalists understand that every occasion with the reader is, at least at the beginning, an opportunity to make our work better and also to find people who support us, there will be little more to do. If we don’t engage, then no one will, and the given times demand someone to at least trying to have real discussions with the people. “Conversation is the beginning” cannot be just a slogan anymore.