12/08/2008 04:41 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Let's Hear It: Comments Add Vitality and Truth to News Stories

Some professional journalists and journalism organizations are like weapons manufacturers when it comes to their view of commenters to their web sites. They provide the guns and ammo but feel downright squeamish about how their product is used.

Even bloggers and non-traditional sources are protesting. Gawker, the king of snarky comment, had a post earlier this year headlined: "Why Newspapers Shouldn't Allow Comments." The premise was that pro writers shouldn't be "senselessly torn apart" in the comments attached to their stories. The author also quotes New York Daily News commenters on a story about the bust of a strip club. "W-h-o-r-e" was one entire contribution. Forget the free speech argument, the Gawker blogger said. "We've had free speech for well over 200 years, long before it was ever an option to comment on newspaper web sites and blogs."

True, but we never had the technological means to let people comment until recently. And we all love having the traffic comments bring us. We're just much less thrilled about what the users have to say. About a third of all US newspapers, including the Chronicle, enable comments on their stories. Most media web site comment playgrounds are policed, whether more by the site managers or by the users. Regulation and surveillance, however, don't solve the problem because there are legal issues, the rules are usually pretty loose and thorough scrubbing up would cost too much in work hours.

So how do you pay more than lip service to the idea of public participation? How do you create "community" but limit it only to a community you'd be comfortable living in yourself? Or should you?

This is not easy, so let's put the blame somewhere: Shame on you commenters! Can't you just behave? Be more predictable? Less nasty and mean? Life would be so much easier for the hosts if this now-common experiment in opening up public channels of communication wasn't so messy and chaotic and dirty.

Author/journalist Michael Kinsley, who I"m interviewing this Tuesday at the Commonwealth Club, probably had the biggest collision with what he half-jokingly called "the rabble" when he threw open the editorial pages of the Los Angeles Times to the wiki model. Things were great and democratic (probably also Democratic) for a day or so. Then the ranters and porn purveyors took over. The Times' bold new adventure was shut down in about three days, never to be spoken of again. Mr. Kinsley, by his own description, "got fired."

Technology shouldn't be the only arbiter of its own use. (We do because we can). Journalists still get paid to exercise some judgment. But we close out citizens at our own risk. And that risk has proven to be huge.

I look at a story we ran on SF Gate (and in the Chronicle) last week as a great example of the value of comments, even on a sensitive topic.

A 20-year-old identified initially as Brandon Williams, from San Diego, was shot to death on a Saturday night near the Conservatory of Flowers in Golden Gate Park. At first, facts were scarce, as they often are. A short story appeared on SF Gate Sunday. Comments kicked in almost immediately.

innerrichmond said he/she was in the Park and saw no police tape or other signs of a shooting. "Who was Brandon Williams? Where's the shooter? Still in the park?"

Others urged the reporter to add overall homicide data to the story at a time when SF murders may break a record. navigator wondered why Oakland gets all the ongoing violence attention. "Where are the War Zone stories" about SF? "Where is the feature "San Francisco: A Plague of Killing"?" There are reasonable citizen suggestions to their primary local news outlet.

Several commenters suggested other potential stories. moedoe4me "was driving by 16th and Mission Saturday 12:30 AM, there was a stand off between a white hummer limo and about 6-8 cop cars. Cops came out with guns drawn." When I was a reporter working Sundays, tips like that often turned into good Monday reads. ossnative reported seeing "a young man about Brandon's age" beaten and bloodied, his backpack stolen, in the Park the week before.

But some were snide: "Great idea, hang around in the park after dark." The worst ones were blocked by an sfgate editor, flagged by other commenters or seen by a gate staffer.

Then zod1ac said he lives close by and "definitely heard at least six gunshots, maybe eight." So there's a bit of actual information. zod1ac was excoriated by other commenters for reporting this fact on sfgate and not to police. He defended himself pretty adequately. That debate was interesting, a window on regular folks and crime, responsibility, technology, etc. Another person suggested interviewing people on "Hippe Hill" who may have witnessed the shooting.

cosmic_ray, for detail junkies, responded to a comment about the danger in stopping to smell the roses, that the Conservatory doesn't have roses anymore. A full list of flowers that are there followed.

Then, a startling entry: michaelevans, who turned out to be the victim's father, sobered up the place with his grief: "The young man you are commenting about is my Son! He's no illegal alien and his last name is not Williams. His name is Brandon Lee Evans. He was a fine young man..."

navigator came back right away: "I'm truly sorry for your loss, Mr. Evans." Many others expressed their regrets for some of the more thoughtless commenters - including those who wondered whether Mr. Evans was real and what he was doing on a comment board at such a time of grief - and their sympathy. "I'm not offended by your illegal immigrant comment," Michael Evans answered. "But someone has made comments and used the "LMAO" and I feel they are being rude and insensitive to the tragedy that my family is facing. Those who have showed concern and respect, I truly thank you."

There were more nasty comments anyway, but they were washed over by a much larger wave of concern and expressions of sorrow.

Michael Evans' posts not only inserted immediacy and a powerful personal aspect to the comments, but, because commenters have to give sfgate a real email address, a Chronicle reporter was able to track him down. He was truly Brandon's dad and his quotes added immeasurably to the updated story.

Friends of Brandon's posted later, as did his mom. Several commenters said they were eyewitnesses and offered testimony of the tragedy.

So there we had it, all in one story's comment string. Tips, information, two eyewitnesses, criticism, debate, drama, compassion, flesh and blood, nastiness and a robust back-of-the-hand in response.

It doesn't get much better than that when you open up the doors to the public. Let's hope authorities, journalists, Brandon's family and others took the wealth of feedback to heart. Despite some cruelty, SF Gate users and the larger community were generally very well served by the comments.

Still, the debate goes on. I got a copy of one email from a reader who himself had lost friends in "tragic accidents" and objected to us allowing any "hurtful comments" on such stories.

Gate Editor Vlae Kershner's thoughtful response: "Thanks for writing. We don't believe in prior moderation of comments; we think it restricts spontaneous discussion. However, we recognize that hurtful comments about people who have recently died are often posted, and their friends and families may become justifiably outraged."

"Not all negative comments about the recently deceased will be violations of our terms of service, but some could be considered hate speech or other abuses. If you have any specific comments you believe are violations, you should use the "report abuse" function. If you have already done that, and the moderators have decided not to remove the comment, please send the comments to me, including the name of the poster and the time and date posted, and our comment abuse team will consider them on a case-by-case basis."

Commenters: boon or bane? You decide. Just don't say anything personal, mean, racist, or crazy.