GetReligion turns nine: Thoughts on comments and trolls

So, friends and neighbors, if we are going to do some intense navel-gazing here at GetReligion (nine years into this project), then I will assume that it’s fair game to briefly pay some attention to a different set of navels.

So a blogger named Baldur Bjarnason decided to do a bit of reflecting on the lessons he learned about online writing during 2012. All of his reflections were worth reading, but I was especially struck by his blunt thoughts on what kind of material draws comments from readers (and the nature of those comments).

As I have said many times, GetReligion is not an opinion blog about religion news and trends, it is a commentary blog about the highs and lows of mainstream media attempts to cover religion news and trends. We are strong advocates of old-school American journalism, with an emphasis on accuracy, balance and fairness to voices on both sides of hot-button topics.

Many readers simply cannot grasp what we are doing, or choose to ignore the journalism angle.

That has always been the case, but since this blog’s move to the Patheos universe there has definitely been an increase in the number of readers who click “comment” and then comment on the religious and cultural issues in the posts, rather than on the journalism hooks in the posts. I would say that, on my posts, I end up spiking about 50 percent of all comments. The goal is to try, try, try to discuss religion-news coverage.

Bjarnason faces different challenges, but several of his comments, for me, hit close to home. Some samples:

* There is little to no discourse online. What you get are dug in factions and people’s opinion on you are based solely on whether your argument supports what they have chosen to be ‘their team’. If you try and stick to facts and logic, most factions will reject you. It’s ideological trench warfare and the best you can hope for is that the machine-gun nests don’t notice you. …

* People love to send you argumentative, angry, or otherwise negative emails. That is, if they aren’t asking you to work for free.

* Praise is generally only handed out on disposable media, like Twitter, and rarely anywhere where it counts (like blogs, reviews, or other writing). … A remarkable number of people will only say nice things to your face, in private, and never in public. …. The end result is that positive feedback is ephemeral while negative feedback gets preserved forever on angry blogs, comments and forums. …

* You can trust that ideas that are new and unfamiliar to an audience will be either ignored or met with anger.

* Nobody cares when you’re right but a lot of people really enjoy it when you’re wrong. They will rub it in your face.

* There’s no way to tell beforehand which bits you make will take off and which won’t. That nicely written, funny, and informative post will go down like a feminist speech at a men’s rights convention while the quick info-dump written and posted in less than an hour takes off and gets stratospheric traffic.

* There is absolutely no correlation between how much work you put into a post or a piece of writing and how much attention it gets.

* Nasty people are incredibly persistent while nice people go off having lives of their own (they have lives because they are not nasty).

* The only thing people like more than a post that states the obvious is an angry post that states the obvious. Angry and unreasonable will easily get ten times the attention of even-handed and rational. …

There’s much more, but I focused on the really negative stuff (cue: rim shot and cymbal splash) so that more people would comment.

Please keep reading.

Rod “friend of this blog” Dreher added a few comments of his own to this list. Here are a few that are highly relevant to my experiences here at GetReligion:

* Posts having to do with homosexuality or race are always going to be the most popular (i.e., most commented on) posts, no matter what.

* The chances that anybody will have anything fresh to say, or will give any indication of having had second thoughts in any respect about either issue, are vanishingly small.

* Even in a highly curated commenting community like this one, a surprising number of people don’t give evidence of having read the post they’re commenting on. My favorite one this past year was the reader who started his comment with, “I didn’t really read this post, but here’s what I think,” or something very close to that. …

* When commenters don’t do these things, and rather see things I post, and that other readers post, more as invitations to a civil discussion or respectful argument, and respond in kind, that’s the kind of thing that makes doing this worthwhile.

What would I add? Only a few rather obvious things.

* Americans are not very interested in foreign news. Period.

* Requests for people to add URLs to their comments, to provide background and hard information for readers, are rarely heeded.

* People whose comments are spiked are way more interested in politics than either doctrine or journalism.

* I wish more working journalists were willing to leave on-the-record comments. It would really help the discourse around here.

* There is no way on earth we could do this blog without the help of readers who send us URLs from their local media and other sources. We all have jobs and we post on as many links as we can. My guilt file is always thick.

Now, discuss.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Jon in the Nati

    I have been a reader of and frequent commenter on GR since sometime in 2009. I believe that there has been a marked decrease both in the quantity and quality of comments since the Patheos move. (I was agin’ it at the time, but that is just because I am a young fogey who doesn’t like change.) On the ‘old site’ there were many good commenters who understood GR’s purpose, read it because they thought the purpose was an important one, and commented accordingly. Lots of good, civil and informative debate and discourse was had in the comboxes. I notice now that there seem to be fewer dedicated commenters, and more people who (while not trolls or flamers, per se) seem more interested in making angry, non-journalism-related comments and not sticking around to have a discussion about the actual content. And many of these comments represent a viewpoint that could best be described as ‘angry conservative’, to my mind enhancing GR’s unearned and unfair reputation as a ‘politically-conservative whinge-fest’ (I don’t have a source, but I’ve seen those exact words used).

    I am interested that you note you’ve have observed something similar, because I have often wondered if you, MZ and the others were seeing what I was seeing. I don’t mean the above as criticism, because I still love the site and what it stands for; and I hate to be the guy who always says “It used to be better back in the day…” I guess my overall feeling is that the Patheos move, for better or for worse, has put subjected GR to the perils of opinion blogging (at least in part because it appears on a site with so many other straight-up opinion pieces) when the old ‘stand alone’ site largely avoided them.

    Thanks for the continued efforts, and the opportunity to post.

  • Ben

    Mollie – Can you expand a bit on the desire for reporters to leave on the record (fully named, I gather) comments?

    • mollie

      It’s Terry’s post. But I do agree that the more that reporters can present themselves in the comment boxes, the better it is for general relations between journalist and reader/viewer.
      Obviously there are reporter comments on many posts but even more common are the private notes from reporters — I understand that not every comment can be on the record but many of the comments we receive privately would be fine and beneficial in a comment box. For the good of the country and all that!

  • Jerry

    Where I really agree with you is in the area of foreign news. Many too many ignore the truly historic developments in the Islamic world. It directly affects Muslims from North Africa through the Middle East and into the East. If affects the rest of the world to one degree or another. What is going on is a struggle for the soul of Islam with theology at the center of the struggle.

    The media certainly contributes to this because news stories fail over and over to show how relevant this struggle is to America. All too often we see and read sensational stories about this struggle with any relevance minimized or trivialized.

    And all too often the media ignores their responsibility to not only report the facts but to help watchers and readers to understand the context of the facts, especially the religious context.

    • mollie

      Jerry, even if it’s just you and me commenting on those foreign stories, I’m still glad to cover them. It may be buried in the midst of not-so-good stories but I actually think I’ve seen some of the best foreign correspondence to cover religion angles in recent years — some from the Washington Post, some from the New York Times, some from the LA Times.
      Kirkpatrick at the NYT in Egypt, for instance, does a solid job of adding context to his news reports.

  • Laura

    Jerry said it right. I wanted to say in my last comment here, how I also loved the posts about Islam and the struggles in the middle east. I love how GR highlights good stories which site the religious reasons behind the struggles, but I find tthat reporters often ignore or minimize what is actually at play in these divisions.

  • Jim B

    I have been a Getreligion reader since at least 2007 and enjoy the way you challenge journalists to take a balanced look at the news they report. This site has changed the way that I read and perceive all news, not just religious news. Thank you for all that you do.
    About foreign reporting: I rarely comment on foreign reporting because I find that I don’t have much to add to the conversation. I am often at the mercy of the reporter when it comes to understanding the underlying story of what is happening “over there.” I suspect that there are other, more consistent commenting readers that are in the same boat I find myself in. I am fascinated by what is happening throughout Asia but still struggle to clearly delineate between what makes someone a Shia or a Sunni and which group have people that are Wahhabi. Ultimately, if I can’t keep these things straight, I am going to struggle in identifying weaknesses in a story about the Islamic world. I suspect others share my struggles.

  • Chris Bolinger

    I am happy that you spike a lot of comments and remind people to focus on journalism. Most unmoderated comment sections are a free-for-all of people shouting at each other, tearing others down, and trying to impress people they’ll never meet. They are essentially unreadable. In contrast, most comments here are thoughtful, just like the posts.

    Keep up the good work.

  • MJBubba

    I still read every post here as I have for years, but I have been reading less of the discussions since the move to Patheos. After awhile I think things will settle down some.
    I seldom have anything useful to contribute regarding international media, but I find those posts to be extremely informative. Thanks.

  • FW Ken

    I’ve been spiked enough to be considered a troll, no doubt, but Patheos does seem a rough neighborhood.

  • John M.

    I often find the posts by working journalists that defend the press’ flagrant bias as being something other than flagrant bias to be really embarrassing. It’s happened several times.

    -John

  • tmatt

    A comment on this thread got lost the other day, while I was out of town — on a three-day speaking engagement at Johnson University near Knoxville. This frequent critic of the site noted:

    This is hilarious. You write this post just as Mollie is involved in a long argument in comments on her idiotic SPLC post, which has nothing to do with journalism. Can you not see how her very presence on this website detracts from your mission? What does that post or her discussion have to do with religion or journalistic coverage of religion? It doesn’t and it seems like it was imported from Redstate or some other conservative site.

    Whatever; you won’t post this anyway. I just wish you could make this site, and the comments, actually about what you claim you want it to be. As it is, you’ll write a few articles that are pretty thoughtful and there will be a lot of posts about how the Episcopal Church is dying and Mollie will continue her audition for the Glenn Beck show. Have Fun!

    I just wanted to affirm several points. It was clear that religious issues were at the heart of the failed terrorism attack at the Family Research Center. It also seems to me that the press was quick to talk about the “hate” angles of one story and not the other. I mean, there were factual details linked to motive in one case, while the other was proven to be a matter of speculation.

    Thus, I affirm MZ’s post. It was a bit snarky, but appropriate. I too thought the WPost coverage was bizarre, quite frankly.

    As for coverage of the Episcopal Church dying, etc., I will simply say that GetReligion continues to argue for mainstream coverage of the religious left and right, with critical, informed voices being quoted on both sides — as well as facts posted into the public record (such as membership and attendance numbers from Episcopal vs. Anglican national churches, etc.) As always, if you find a post here at GR that does not argue for accurate, balanced coverage on these issues, please let me know.

    Please do not yell. Send me a URL.

    • Thinkling

      Terry, the title of this thread is “Thoughts on comments and trolls”. You got two for the price of one there, well played.

  • Becky

    With fear and trembling, I will attempt to defend any “angry conservative” comments I’ve made.
    1. A GR post analyzes how well a journalist, working with limited space, presents a story with background information, to include all sides to a story, and how well the journalist brings religion out from under the rug where it has been swept but it is making a visible bump.
    2. Both the religious right and left need to be heard from. And anybody in the middle of the road.
    3. But the religious left is well-represented by the secular left that occupies the newsrooms of the mainstream media.
    4. The religious right is poorly represented in newsrooms.
    5. So the failure of a journalist to bring out all sides will usually be a failure to bring out the religious right side.
    It’s just the numbers of the thing.
    And if they are not pulling out voices from the religious left, it is because it so closely identifies with the secular left, which feels superior in the scientific rationality of its own voice.

    Our moral vocabularies are certainly drifting further and further apart. A Ben Carson refers to the biblical principle of the “tithe” at a National Prayer Breakfast… and a Candy Crowley says “Whoa!” and proceeds to ask her fellows whether he really should have talked about flat taxes at that forum in front of the President.
    So the religious left borrows from the Bible as it suits, e.g. Obama’s mis-use of “am I my brother’s keeper?” and there is no scrutiny from the secular left, but they are shocked when the religious right refers to an episode in the Bible?
    It just feels like it’s all going one way. It’s hard not to get angry.

    The left, and therefore the journalist, seems to have a laundry list of morals that they steadfastly do not recognize as an ersatz religion that
    1. binds their own behavior and
    2. that they would like to see bind other people’s behavior.
    I submit, when the press “doesn’t get religion”, sometimes it is garden-variety ignorance, and other times they are willfully ignoring their own religion.


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