It's one thing for a company to deal with news stories about its controversies.
It's a whole other issue to deal with the comments that readers post in those news websites.
Almost always anonymous, comment pages are often filled with personal attacks on the company, its executives, even spouses. People claiming to be insiders recall damming meetings that may or may not have taken place. Others reveal company secrets. Some are sexist, others racist. Many go off on diatribes implicating the company in a litany of conspiracies.
Some comments are downright malicious. In a recent case, a local newspaper site allowed inflammatory comments pretending to come from a prominent employee. She spent a week insisting that she wasn't the author.
In short, online reader comments have become home for the kind of claptrap that those same media wouldn't dare print in their op/ed sections.
That's what editor Jim Brady said in 2006 when the Washington Post blog stopped accepting readers comments. "What we're not willing to do is allow the comments area to turn into a place where it's OK to unleash vicious, name-calling attacks on anyone, whether they are Post reporters, public figures or other commenters," Brady wrote. "And that's exactly what was happening."
Most local newspaper sites haven't followed the Post's lead.
Why? Because comments are a cheap way to make money. Lots of comments generate lots of space for online ads without paying reporters.
Online comments create mixed feelings in the newsrooms. Editors field angry calls from people or their attorneys demanding comments be deleted. The newspapers often refuse, rationalizing that deleting one anonymous, hostile message would imply that they're policing all of them.
Some reporters have gotten to the point where they're no longer interested in what their most vocal readers are saying.
"I'll see that there are a hundred comments posted to a story and won't even look," one reporter told me. "I know what kind of stuff is in there. It's just disgusting."
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