An editorial comment on news comments

I am a news reader. I get my news from a variety of sources, domestic and international, left and right leaning, and also go to direct sources whenever practical. I also read comments submitted by readers in response to articles and editorials. They are worthy of reflection.

The vast majority of comments from readers are vitriolic. And most are pathetically written name calling rants directed at the authors and more often other readers. Obscenity and defamation aside, the childish comments are supposedly a reflection of the attitudes and opinions of folks who are motivated to comment by what they have just read. Admittedly this is a biased sample of opinion since it is self-selected, but it is nonetheless mass opinion, publicly shared. What’s wrong with that?

Under the guise of freedom of expression aka free speech, comments pages have been created to enable the public to express opinions on reporting and editorial content.   But what we see posted is not constructive argument and opinion; posted comments are almost entirely abusive, irrelevant, un-thoughtful and childish. Read them yourselves – try Fox and Washington Post comments at the end of stories to get both Left and Right political samples.

An thought I had while reading some dozens of comments this morning would make an interesting Political Science or Sociology thesis for research. Are there differences in the quality and quantity of comments across different media? In my experience, unscientific though it is, I see a distinct differences depending on the media source in these respects:

  1. Thoughtfulness. Ranging from childish name calling to thoughtful comment the array is full spectrum.
  2. Emotion. It seems everyone who writes is angry for some reason, but there are degrees of outrage that vary across the comments and the content subject area.
  3.  Relevance. Many comments have nothing to do with the content of the article or editorial being commented on.

My colloquial experience is Left leaning media comments are quite different in these characteristics from Right leaning media comments. Again I encourage you to see for yourself a la FOX / WAPO / CNN / NYT / BBC and others.

A proper scientific study of these characteristics could be done using Sentiment Analysis, a technique that is fairly mature, and used by companies to monitor brand attributes and the like. Such analysis of comments text would be very interesting. It would make a great thesis topic for a Masters degree in Sociology or Political Science. I hope someone takes this on! Comments have become an increasingly important and almost completely ignored source of information about the attitudes and opinions – and how they are shaped – in today’s society.

If you’ve read this far you’ll have noticed I am not opining on what such an analysis will show. I have my own experience and opinions of course, but that’s not the point. The point is in the absence of research the burden is on you, the reader, to discover for yourself what your social peers thing and say. And to do that it is important to look on both sides of the political spectrum.

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