Monday, January 24, 2011

Comments and breaking news stories: Rep. Giffords, Moscow bombing stories lead to reader speculation

A couple of weekends ago news flashes reported that a shooting had taken place at a Tucson Safeway grocery store. Immediately news websites from the NYT to Huffington Post began covering the event. On many news websites, the stories were accompanied by reader comments. That is where things started to get out of hand.

On the day after the shooting I wrote about the huge error NPR had made by posting that Rep. Giffords had died. That day Dick Meyer, executive editor of NPR News, apologized to readers of their website.

I also pointed out, however, that certain new media websites had made a royal mess of the story, as well. Talking Points Memo was very quick to flash the NPR story, and readers on the site were very quick to assign blame.

Today The Guardian is dealing with the issue of comments on its breaking news stories. It's live blog on the home page already has several readers begging the editors to turn off the comments on the story. Their complaints are pretty standard: too many readers are willing to speculate on motives, perpetrators, etc. As a result, those reading the comments are skewing the story even when the editors may be playing it straight.

But the temptation to include comments throughout a website seems too strong. Even the NYT is allowing comments on its main story.

As an example, Tim from Texas writes: This is likely to be the work of Chechans. Is there a good reason why US and Russia cannot work together against a common enemy? One of the reasons Islamist movements are such a grave thread to the entire world is that the rest of the world has a hard time uniting against them. Short term expediency seems to be the order of the day.

Do comments on stories that are still developing really serve a purpose, or are they simply a way to increase page views? Obviously I have my own opinion on this.