The ‘comment’ game, part 2

As of Monday afternoon, 90 comments had been posted on about the Boston Globe’s story about Don Chiofaro’s clash with Mayor Thomas Menino, and they seemed split fairly evenly between opponents of the controversial developer and opponents of the mayor.

As I reported last week, Chiofaro’s opponents knew the Globe story was coming and were urging their backers to weigh in with online comments about the proposed towers on the site of the Harbor Garage.

Tom Palmer, a former Globe development reporter now handling media relations for Harbor Towers residents opposed to the skyscrapers, sent out an email  to his clients explaining in detail how to post comments anonymously to the article. Palmer called the online comments, which are essentially a story-specific letters to the editor page, “an important and even necessary way to influence opinion.”

The whole episode showed how online comments are becoming a force in journalism, at least in the eyes of some people. Newspaper online comment sections are open to everyone, unlike the letters to the editor sections that appear in print editions. But the online comment sections are also subject to manipulation because little to no checking occurs on who is writing the comments. In theory, one person could write many comments on the same article.

David Beard, who oversees for the Globe, acknowledged he doesn’t have a fleet of editors reviewing online comments as long as they meet the newspaper’s standards for decency. He said the comments on the Chiofaro story seemed to reflect both sides of the issue. “It looks like the system corrected for itself,” he said.

Palmer said in a telephone interview today that he had no way of knowing if his clients did comment because the comments are posted anonymously. “But I was happy to see our side was well represented by the people who did comment,” he said.

Casey Ross, the Globe reporter who wrote the Chiofaro story, didn’t see evidence of one side trying to stack the deck with comments. “The comments I read seemed reasonable, evidence a thoughtful conversation is happening, even if not between Chiofaro, Menino et al,” he said in an email. picked up on the original CW Unbound post with a story about problems it has faced with anonymous commenters:

The abuse of website comments by anonymous posters with axes to grind was the primary reason why changed its comments policy to require real identities (with at least first names and last initials). Before the change, repetitive and often hateful posts were being made by biased parties in order to sway opinions. The trend away from anonymous comments is increasing (see this Media Nation post) and the newspaper sites may have to eventually make the change to real names as well. It results in fewer comments, but a much more meaningful discussion. In the meantime, when you read anonymous comments on these other websites, keep in mind the information is most likely bunk. (P.S. – Nothing against Harbor Towers residents, Tom Palmer, nor their position on the issue. I understand they are just reacting to the same anonymous posts made by the developer’s side.)

In his email to his Harbor Towers clients, Palmer said he had received assurances from Ross that his article wouldn’t be a “puff piece” about Chiofaro, and on that score Palmer said he was satisfied. “I thought Casey wrote a very fair story,” he said. “I haven’t felt that way about a lot of the coverage.”

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine

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