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Gentili: What the heck happened to the comments?

In our ongoing efforts to improve how readers comments on the news of the day, last week Sudbury.com unveiled a new way to share your opinion
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If you are a regular visitor to Sudbury.com you might have noticed a change in our comment section. 

Last week, we rolled out a new way to share your thoughts on the stories of the day with the phrase “Comments are out on Sudbury.com.” 

The comment section has been a point of contention for us and for readers for as long as we had invited comments. 

Some readers avoided the comment section like the plague, telling us the negativity and the toxicity on display there was just too unwelcoming to participate. Other readers seem to find the somewhat aggressive cut and thrust of the comments appealing and were happy to wade into the fray.

Moderation is never fun. It is not fun for our staff who do not feel overly comfortable “policing” the comments for breaches of our comment guidelines. Interacting with readers who feel their comments were unfairly moderated is particularly challenging as well.

No one likes being moderated. And while Sudbury.com’s goal with moderation is to remove comments that contain foul language, personal attacks and misinformation, we are routinely accused of policing people’s opinions rather than how they choose to express that opinion or of pushing some kind of political agenda. 

It should go without saying, but Sudbury.com does not have a political agenda. The notion that we would sacrifice our integrity over politics is laughable.

But back to commenting. Most readers do not comment. And by most, we mean probably somewhere north of 99 per cent of readers do not comment at all, meaning the toxicity and negativity so many complain about are being perpetrated by a tiny fraction of our readers.

We have decided we will no longer cater to this tiny fraction of readers by continuing with a comment section that most people avoid.

Maybe we are idealistic, but we think the vast majority of our readers are smart, knowledgeable people, who care about their community and their country, and actually have worthwhile, nuanced opinions on the issues of the day.

Unfortunately, these are the same people who are driven away by the very nature of the comment section, which opened commenters to personal attacks and insults from those who disagree.

The question then is how to encourage people to share their opinions while stopping the childish insults. The goal, ultimately, is to turn the comments into something worthwhile, a place where people on different sides of an issue can freely exchange opinions, points and counterpoints without resorting to cursing, name-calling and misinformation and without being subjected to them.

Again, maybe we are just idealistic but we think it is worth a shot.

While we are not soliciting for comments, we are soliciting for your thoughts. If you scroll to the bottom of our stories you will notice the change: four new icons strung across the bottom of the story. Three of those icons are self-explanatory: Click the Have A Story? icon if you would like to pitch a story idea to us; click Report A Mistake if you see a typo or factual error, and; click Ask A Question if you have a question about a story, about our coverage or about any issue you think we might be able to answer.

The one we really want to talk about today though is the Add To The Story icon. Click this if you would like to share your thoughts on what you just read. We envision this as being similar to letters to the editor.

We do not publish every letter we receive. Far from it. A much more rigorous process is used to decide which letters we print. Letters are evaluated for their timeliness, for how well the person expresses their opinion or makes their argument, and for the quality of the writing. 

We are applying the same process to deciding which comments we allow through and which we do not. As well, we are no longer allowing replies to other comments, which is where most of the fruitless arguing and insults occurred, in hopes more readers will feel free to express themselves without fear of being attacked.

The bottom line is we want to hear from you. Short comments are fine, but so are longer, letter-length ones. We want to share your thoughts — nuanced, well-reasoned and rational thoughts — on the issues we cover. So scroll to the bottom of any story on Sudbury.com and add to the story.

Mark Gentili is the editor of Sudbury.com.