Skip to content

Banish the Trolls: Why Ignoring Commenters, Tweeters and Facebookers Isn’t an Option


Since I started as Web Editor at The Columbian a few months ago, I’ve seen more than one outraged reporter in the newsroom loudly refuse to respond to, or even read the comments on their stories. It reached a fever pitch back in December when we narrowly avoided a newsroom revolt due to a few nasty trolls directly attacking the reporters and their work.

After a series of phone conversations over the past few months with Web Editors at newspapers and blogs across the country, I can confidently say we are all dealing with the same issues: unruly commenters, off-topic or unproductive conversations (think treatises bashing Obamacare posted alongside double-homicide stories), outraged reporters and editors and general frustration with this whole effort to build our “online community.”

Like other local newspapers, we have at times been tempted to stop allowing comments selectively or altogether. The Register-Guard, for example, only allows commenting on a story-by-story basis, depending on whether the editors think it will receive nasty comments. Cops stories seem to bear the brunt of unsavory comments, so why allow discussion there at all? Another increasingly popular option is to get rid of anonymous commenting altogether through a laborious process of call center, credit card or other ID verification systems.

No one yet has the perfect answer to the trolling problem, but ignoring commenters, tweeters and Facebookers – our online community – isn’t an option. The conversation doesn’t go away, it only happens elsewhere, off your site, and out of your page count. That means media outlets should be doing much more to encourage the kinds of comments and participation we’d like to see. Why? Here are three good reasons (there are many more).

  1. At a minimum, participation and social sharing create referrals and links to content. This expands our audience to those who wouldn’t normally visit the site. And that means more unique pageviews and more ad $$.
  2. Engaged readers are also loyal. They come back to read responses to their comments and comment on other stories. They build personal relationships with each other and with our staff, which makes them more likely to share their opinions, issues and grievances (think source-building and news tips).
  3. It meets our journalistic mission of holding truth to power. Community news sites should be a platform for diverse viewpoints and a sounding board for solutions to society’s deepest troubles. Good, productive conversation can and does happen online. We have a responsibility to foster it.

I made a similar appeal to our reporters last year in this Slideshare presentation.

For all of these reasons and more, The Columbian is committing new resources to building its online community. I just hired our first social media coordinator, Matt Wastradowski, a former features reporter who really gets social media, journalism and community outreach. He will act as community manager and online ombudsman to encourage participation and guide discussion on our site.

We want to convey to our readers that we’re paying attention and that we care about them online and offline. Ignoring them is no longer an option.

February Digital Journalism Portland Social Hour

Topic: Why is community interaction our responsibility?

Visit Upcoming and RSVP

Date: Feb. 22, 2011
Time: 7 p.m.
The Canvas Art Bar & Bistro
1800 NW Upshur Street, Portland

Flickr CC photo by Doug Wildman

  1. 02/11/2011 12:37 pm

    To amplify about what goes on down here at, we’ve found that a rough rule of thumb when it comes to turning on the reader comments on a given story is to use it on community resource-issue stories:

    * how to handle the school funding crises in Eugene and Springfield
    * if/where to build an extension of the rapid-transit system into West Eugene
    * Phil Knight-based facilities spending at the UO

    These tend to result in better-quality responses than do comments on a breaking news story where you tend to get a lot more, um, heat than light.

    Leaving everything open to everybody definitely hasn’t worked for us [1], but, it’s a work-in-progress (as is the entire site!).

    [1] i.e., the YouTube model:

  2. 02/11/2011 1:20 pm

    Engaging your readers is essential, do not ignore them. We found that moderating comments really helps with the trolls. It can be a burden for sites with high volumes of traffic but for us moderating plus a strong comment policy has resulted in better conversations. When a comment is submitted that doesn’t meet our comment policy we contact the commentor, explain why it doesn’t meet the policy, and ask them to resubmit the comment in a format that is acceptable. We want different points of view, but we want the comments to be respectful. Most often the email address given by the commentor is not valid (a violation of our policy) and the comment is not published. But we do have readers who will resubmit the comment according to our guidelines. We have found that helps the conversation. Often people won’t engage in comments because they don’t want to get attacked by the trolls. When they know that won’t happen they will then comment.

  3. 02/11/2011 1:23 pm

    Thanks for elaborating on your policies, John. I definitely over-simplified. :) I think every news outlet has to figure out what methods work best for them and their audience. Selective commenting, as you’ve found, can be an effective method of encouraging discussion on the topics where it’s most beneficial for everyone. I like your approach in that it keeps that community focus on the public good.

    We’ve actually talked about selectively removing the ability to comment on stories that specifically touch on a tragic death. Our concern is for the friends and family of the victims, who are sometimes subjected to cruel and heartless comments about their loved ones. But that then also removes the possibility of positive discussion, especially when it comes to crime prevention or neighborhood policing. (The VPD reads our comments, too, and sometimes follow up on crime tips!) Our best approach so far is to monitor comments actively on those stories, remove flagged comments and remind people to be civil. It can be labor intensive, for sure.

    • 02/11/2011 2:40 pm

      Yeah, sadly offering anonymous commenting on a death story is more than the average Web troll can resist. And thanks for including the R-G in the conversation! We’re flattered.

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: