Archive for the ‘comment’ tag

Why do people comment?

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I’m genuinely perplexed. Why do people comment on news websites? On the BBC’s ‘Have Your Say’, on the Guardian’s Comment is Free (CiF), on the Telegraph’s View or on the various others?

The overwhelming number of comments on many of these (not all by any means) are one-sided, often aggressively one-sided, and often aggressively one-sided against the publication in which they’re commenting. Many of the community commenting on the Guardian’s CiF appear to feel little but contempt for the publication. Take a look, for example, at responses to Polly Toynbee’s piece about the ‘Miserablist’ media today. Since this is probably not a fair example – many commenters targeting their aggression at the columnist rather than the publication – have a look too at comments on David Cox’s fascinating piece a few months back, ‘Media and the Mob’.

Is it cathartic? Does leaving a comment attacking the column – or columnist – relieve some of the anger of the commenter? People have, it is true, spent so many years unable to respond in real time to opinion pieces to which they object that this may simply be a natural reaction to the many years mainstream media has filtered, censored and suppressed the public voice.

Still, there is a peculiar lack of balance that suggests big media have not yet worked out the best way to structure comment spaces. Responses to today’s Telegraph View, ‘What is the BBC for?‘, for example, though not anti-Telegraph, are overwhelmingly anti-BBC. Are Telegraph readers really that hostile to the BBC? Do the vast majority of them think the Corporation is “just another feature of the revoltingly decayed British state” (Jake). Or that its primary purpose is “Leftist propaganda” (Luke) and “the dissemination of left-wingery, political correctness and soft porn” (RS). These, by the way, are some of the more polite comments.

And yet, do an analysis of the media consumption of Telegraph readers and you find the majority of them consume significant amounts of the BBC and, in surveys at least, appear to like quite a lot of the news it provides and the programmes it makes.

Perhaps, as Jeff Jarvis told the ‘Future of Journalism’ conference, news organisations simply need to get much better at hosting debates. “We need to figure out who the smart people are – it’s not just about creating content but also curating people.” By this he means (I think) that news websites need the odd David Dimbleby to help frame a discussion and encourage those to speak who might otherwise lack a voice.

Equally, better that people vent their anger on the web than on the street. Perhaps we do need the odd Speakers’ Corner after all.

Written by Martin Moore

June 24th, 2008 at 3:20 pm

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Commenting on the commentators commenting

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There was a distinct sound of chomping in the air at last night’s ‘The Power of the Commentariat’ event at the Royal Society of Arts. It was the sound of the press eating itself. A panel of commentators (Simon Jenkins, Suzanne Moore, Daniel Finkelstein et al) commenting on a report written by Editorial Intelligence and the Reuters Institute about the influence of commentators in front of an audience of… commentators.

At least it was – in some cases – self-conscious cannibalism. Simon Jenkins opened by calling the occasion ‘impossibly narcissistic’, and Suzanne Moore worried about the clash of egos. Still, one couldn’t help thinking that, if you’re trying to assess the power of media commentators, shouldn’t you do it with an audience of those they are supposed to have power over?

Still, despite its incestuousness, the discussion was not without its talking points. Polly Toynbee – from the audience – asking (in all seriousness) how we create an objective measure of the influence of commentators. Simon Jenkins saying, in reference to online debate and comments by the public, “we’ve unleashed a monster”. And Daniel Finkelstein claiming that Paddy Ashdown’s proposed appointment as chief administrator in Afghanistan was vetoed by Hamid Karzai due to a column published in a British paper.

Yet no-one raised the central question of whether the ‘power of the commentariat’ was rising or falling. The assumption implicit in the panel, and within the accompanying pamphlet, is that it is rising. I’d take issue with this. In fact I’d argue the opposite.

If, as Peter Wilby suggested in the Media Guardian on Monday, the power of commentators now comes mainly from their role as the representative voice of their readers – rather than ‘because their judgments were thought to have value in themselves’ (as in the past) – then as their readers splinter and atomize, so does their influence.

This is borne out by the increasing tendency of commentators – even those previously calm and measured – to shriek and yell to get heard. As Timothy Garton Ash says in the EI/Reuters report “I think it is true that the pressure is to shout louder and louder”. Take Anatole Kaletsky, the awfully smart political economist who writes for The Times. In a column about house prices and the economy last month Kaletsky told his readers they ‘had better reach for the Book of Revelations to find an appropriate word for Britain’s economic prospects in the next year or two’. Isn’t there a teensy bit of hyperbole there?

The current position of commentators is, I think, anomalous. They have temporarily filled a gap in the body politic vacated by local and national politicians, unions, and other bodies that developed to represent the public. But commentators’ right to that representation is tenuous to say the least. They were not voted in, they have no executive political power. All they have is the power of their pen. As their audiences drop and if they resort to hyperbole to cling onto those that remain, that power will, inevitably, fade.

Written by Martin Moore

May 8th, 2008 at 7:27 am

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Vitamin pills and life expectancy

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Today’s story about how vitamin pills make an early death more, rather than less, likely has provoked a sharp reaction online. The Times‘ front page and inside story come in for a barrage of criticism. ‘This is a very complicated subject and risks being dumbed down by the sort of reporting we see in The Times today’ Dr NAC Down comments . ‘A pretty sad piece of journalism’ agrees Gian Piero D’Amico.
In defense of Nigel Hawkes, who covered the story for The Times, and Michael Day, writing in The Sun, both do their best to report the research reasonably faithfully. The research is, however, complex, and almost certainly did not bear being put on The Times’ front page, squashed together with entirely separate research about the impact of low fat food on fertility.
But there was also room for more scepticism and for the representation of more views – particularly given the PA headline (as republished by The Independent) was itself misleading (‘Vitamins could increase risk of death’). As Richard Galle, another commenter on the Times’ site, notes – vitamin pills do not ‘increase risk of death’, rather they may lead to a possible reduction in life expectancy.
Still, ‘worried2′s’ comments on The Sun’s site probably best reflect the thoughts of the 10 million plus vitamin takers who saw today’s coverage: ‘As a pill popper, this sure worries me. Could we have the original reference please?’.
There’s a wonderful final irony about this story – if you search for it online you’re fed a series of ads for vitamin pills (‘Save on vitamins and supplements’, ‘Buy multi-vitamins at Healthspan’).

Written by Martin Moore

February 28th, 2007 at 2:23 pm

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