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Comment Boxes with Online News Stories: Good or Bad?

By Matt Shafer Powell

Knoxville, TN – "Comment boxes" are those open forums that appear below an on-line news article. They can provide important public insight into the article's subject. But they can also degenerate into irrelevant, libelous rants. Across the country, cash-strapped newspapers are trying to figure out if comment boxes are providing an important service or compromising their credibility. From WUOT in Knoxville, Matt Shafer Powell reports.

It seemed like a pretty innocuous story. Freelance writer Brandon Lowe had just written an article for the Knoxville News Sentinel about electric cars coming to Knoxville. Not really a hard-hitting investigative piece, but a solid business story

"It seemed like what I would call a home run. All the elements were there the narrative, you know, electric cars are a timely topic, I mean it really was a simple story, in effect, to approach. Until it published," Lowe said.

Within a few hours of showing up on-line, the story already had more than 40 comments in the comment box. In typical comment box fashion, they ranged from the relevant to the ridiculous. But one comment in particular stood out

This is how it reads. "This reporter obviously did no and no is in all caps there--- this reporter obviously did no research as most of this information is flat-out false."

Lowe says he did make one typographical error. But everything else in the story checked out. He believes his and the News Sentinel's credibility was compromised by one irresponsible comment. And that's just one of the reasons comment boxes have editors wringing their hands in newsrooms across the country. Ultimately, it comes down to this one question how much unfettered access should anonymous readers have when commenting about on-line stories? News Sentinel Editor Jack McElroy says the answer is--- a lot.

"This is the stump down at the corner of the market, it's the barber shop, it's the guy in the bar, it's a pretty raw, unfiltered, free- flowing discussion of whatever is in the news," McElroy said.

McElroy says the comment boxes are an important part of a newspaper's obligation to free speech. And like it or not, he says that free- flowing discussion is here to stay. Jim Stovall teaches on-line media at the University of Tennessee

"You can say, well no, it shouldn't be that way. That means you're still stuck in 20th century thinking about journalism when journalism was pretty separated from its audience. And journalism of the 21st century is not and it's not going to be," Stovall said.

But William S. Rukeyser isn't quite so sure. Rukeyser is the former managing editor at both Money and Fortune magazines

"This isn't the voice of the people. This is the voice of a tiny fraction of the audience, many of which apparently has an axe to grind, or maybe just too much free time on their hands," Rukeyser said.

Rukeyser says comment boxes can and occasionally do feature relevant and important insight. But he says newspapers don't have a responsibility to offer comment blogging for anyone with an opinion

"There's no freedom of speech issue here. Newspapers are a selection of what their editors decide is worth including. And they do not include what editors think should not be included. And I see no reason why this principle shouldn't be applied to the blogs too," Rukeyser said.

Rukeyser suggests newspapers require comment bloggers to identify themselves like the Wall Street Journal does. But that takes time and money to verify something most daily newspapers have little of these days. Meanwhile, business writer Brandon Lowe says he's not an opponent of comment boxes. But he says he's got a new appreciation for the delicate balance newspapers have to maintain when they open up their space to the public

"I think you want people to have a great dialogue about the story. When the dialogue derails your understanding of the story, I think it really is problematic and something that we have to be sensitive about," Lowe said.

Knoxville News Sentinel officials say comment-blogging is still a work in progress. Next month, they plan to initiate the next step in that progress a web site feature that allows readers to hide the comments if they don't want to look at them.