Incivility, credibility and news websites

I try not to read the comments on stories on news websites. They break my heart, disgust me and shock me with their ignorance in equal measure. So I stayed away from yesterday’s story about Scott Morrison’s repulsive whinge about the funerals for the people who died in the Christmas Island boat tragedy. Oh, won’t somebody think of the taxpayers. I reckon the cost of flying 21 asylum seekers to Sydney for the funerals – a cost Morrison found so objectionable – would be about the same as it cost for him to walk the Kokoda Trail in 2009. Bet we paid for that too.

And today Morrison says he “could have chosen his words better”. Clearly he’s been learning from Tony Abbott – throw a bomb of hideousness into the public sphere and then back away and say that “some people” (feminists/lefties/do-gooders – ie, people who aren’t like the rest of “us”) took it the wrong way. “Ohhh, when I said we shouldn’t pay for the flights, I didn’t mean we shouldn’t pay for the flights.”

Anyway, the thing with comments on news websites is that for all the ones that are eyewateringly offensive, there are many more that can’t be published. That are illegal to publish. Thousands of them. Usually filled with typos and more bile than a gallbladder.

Daniel Scoullar has a piece in Online Opinion about how many comments on The Age website are “factually incorrect and showed a poor understanding of how the system works”.

He writes that the same attitudes can be seen in comments on news stories about “other socially disadvantaged groups such as single mothers, refugees, people who are homeless, Indigenous Australians and the unemployed”.

I’ll go further than Scoullar and say the comments these news stories reveal ignorance and a profound mean-spiritedness.

The Daily Telegraph had a classic example yesterday: Asylum seekers’ $2.5 million hotel bill. I’m going to look at just one comment that sums up the ignorance and mean-spiritedness:

Not Happy Natalie of SA Posted at 9:59 AM

Easy sollution.It would be cheaper to send them back home…If they had the money in the 1st place to come here,then years down the track they go back and visit relative’s.They can afford to go and stay back home.Its about time this government stop wasting all this money on these people and start thinking about our own.Here in SA we have a centre in the Adelaide Hills where these “people” were givin free housing/electricity/water/food/clothing.FREE SCHOOLING for the children.Its getting out of hand.Send these people back home….Isnt that what happened a few years ago…Or has everyone forgotten that?Enough is enough.

These “people”. That is so fucking offensive, Not Happy Natalie of SA. Also, learn how to use punctuation. And how to spell.

The idea that just because someone paid to get here, they aren’t a genuine refugee doesn’t make any sense. If we had an extremely conservative Government that cracked down on dissent – say, if we had Tony Abbott and Scott Morrison in charge – then as an opinionated feminist lefty journo and academic, I’d be on The List. My passport would probably be cancelled (and let’s not forget that if a Government is punishing dissenters, they certainly won’t be issuing passports and visas) so of course I’d pay a smuggler to get me out of here. But logic ain’t a strong point with the ignorant.

Part of the blame for this lies with the mainstream media. We report every boat arrival but don’t include any facts about the situation. Facts like how the vast majority of asylum seekers who arrive by boat are found to be genuine refugees, and that 96-99 per cent of asylum seekers arrive by plane. A few quotes from the Government and the Opposition does not make a balanced story.

But this post is about credibility. I don’t know about you, but I judge a news website by the quality of its news stories and the quality of the reader comments. If all the reader comments parrot the asylum seeker myths about dole bludging terrorists who are after our jobs (again, logic fail), then that website loses credibility.

Eun-Ju Lee and Yoon Jae Jang (2010) looked at how the availability of other readers’ reactions to a story influenced how people thought about that story. They found that “people no longer inferred the general opinion climate from the news position but from other readers’ postings,” (p. 843). They also found that people who are “less motivated for effortful cognitive activities” (p. 843) – which I think is my new favourite insult – tend to align their opinions with those reader comments. And that scares the hell out of me.


Lee, E-J. and Jang, Y J (2010), ‘What do others’ reactions to news on internet portal sites tell us? Effects of presentation format and readers’ need for cognition on reality perception’, Communication Research, vol. 37, no. 6, pp. 825-846.

Phillips, J. (2011), ‘Asylum seekers and refugees: what are the facts?’, Background note, Parliamentary Library, Canberra. Available online:

19 responses to “Incivility, credibility and news websites

  1. I have all but stopped reading ‘The Drum’ because I have trouble reading an article and then NOT reading the comments…and I get so overwhelmed by this nihilistic feeling of flattened-ness from the APPALLING comments.
    I may not have made any sense just then – I’m tired.

    • That makes sense. I think it’s always such a shock to read the comments because we tend to hang out with people who have generally the same opinions. I am reminded of that every time we have an election.

  2. Stories on obesity also bring out the best in commenters. People are so willing to be completely horrible, so willing to forget that they’re talking about people, that I get quite anxious reading those comments and many recovering from eating disorders feel triggered.

    • Let me sum up those comments, “If the fatties put down the burger and went to the gym and ate some vegetables, they wouldn’t be fat, because they’ve only got themselves to blame, and by the way, I go to the gym and eat vegetables because I know how to look after myself and have been the same weight for 20 years and that’s why I’m allowed to be a smug arsehole”.

  3. “less motivated for effortful cognitive activities”

    Thank you for bringing this stellar phrase to my attention!

    Based on a statistically insignificant number of articles, I feel fairly okay reading the comments on the ABC News website. Then again, I’m not sure the ABC can really boast much in terms of quality, given that they think Kim Jon-Il’s son going to an Eric Clapton concert qualifies as news.

  4. Ah, comments. So often they make me feel ashamed of being human that I’ve sometimes argued they shouldn’t be allowed at all, on any online publication! Yet without the ability to comment we’d miss out on some great exchanges, such as here on this blog.
    I like to think that offensive comments online are where people exorcise the pettiest, most ignorant, meanest parts of themselves, allowing them to be much nicer in real life. It’s rather pollyanna-ish but it’s the only way I’m able to continue reading anything online.

    • I think there’s something in that theory. People say things online that they’d never say to your face. I have a theory of my own – that it’s only the people who hold strong views who are likely to comment on a news story. (Blogs are different, no doubt because we tend to read blogs we agree with.) When Howard was PM, most of the comments on news stories were anti-Howard. Then they were anti-Rudd and now they’re anti-Gillard.

  5. I find it easy to believe the Eun-Ju Lee and Yoon Jae Jang research…it really does seem like people get more of their views from the comments section than through any form of educating one’s self on the topic and formulating an opinion based on actual sources. That’s too hard, so most formulate their opinion based on a cycle of comments that seem most ‘true’ to them. Idiots.

    Most of the time I avoid comments, cause if I start, the rage balls ensue and I end up scaring the cat with my frothed rantings at the computer. (Of course, it makes the children laugh their arses off because “Mums gone bat shit at the internet tossers again.” )

    “less motivated for effortful cognitive activities”

    So much better than “internet tossers”. Look out boys, Mummy has a new phrase for you to learn.

  6. Some of the comments are by very angry nutjobs. I would rather they used the internet as a form of stress relief than purchase a gun and large amount of ammunition.

  7. Do you think Natalie of SA is so annoyed that refugees get free education because her free education so obviously failed her.

    I had a shout at the news on morrisons and abbots half hearted and insincere apology. I was particularly annoyed by their repeated decision to highlighting apologising for the the ‘timing’ of the comments. This assumes that if they said it next week it would be fine, cos as we all know grief only lasts a week.

    In short, it’s another phoney Liberal apology.

    • Oh, of course he’s only sorry he said it on the day of the funeral. I was saying to ManFriend this morning that our favourite anti-Muslim crusader Cory Bernardi has been very quiet this week. Wonder why?

  8. I remember a news story about the Pike River miners.
    This was while it was all going on and they weren’t sure if they were alive or dead. ran a story and had a comments section.
    Now, people were very supportive of the miners and there was nothing of the ‘damn immigents’ nature, but I think it is very poor taste to allow comments on a story like that because what you get is comments from people who know fuck all about rescuing 29 people out of a mine saying the rescuers/police should “just stop being wusses” and get down there.
    Now, aside from being an incredibly insulting, how must it have been for any family members to read those comments?

    • True. I think the “anything goes as long as it’s not illegal” approach to approving comments is wrong. There have been some experiments done on some American news sites that found that if you only publish those comments that genuinely add to the discussion, then the quality of the comments being sent in increases.

  9. Pingback: Journalists don’t get multiculturalism | the news with nipples

  10. Something that used to be the case was that asylum seekers in detention who were given refugee status had to pay back all the costs of their detention (Which were insanely high given the shitastic conditions they were in) before they could get citizenship.
    (My husband used to refurbish detention buses and found (as well as an amazing collection of sharp pointy objects stuffed down the back of seats and an incredibly easily-unlockable-from-the-inside rear window) a bunch of immigration department documents about the costs incurred by individual asylum seekers in detention.)
    That doesn’t make it ‘free education’.
    Also – what’s with the idea that is is reasonable and right to punish someone’s CHILDREN who had NO CHOICE to come here or not (Assuming there was some sort of ‘choice’ involved on the part of their parents or carers anyway!) by denying them any sort of education for however long it takes to be processed?
    It’s the same sort of ‘bludging single parents who have babies to get the bonus blah blah blah’ attitude – think what you like about the parents, but the children don’t deserve to have some sort of an ‘example’ made of them.

  11. Remember when Howard banned journalists from printing pictures and information about refugees that might make people feel sympathetic to them, and ruin his “We Hate Refugees” parade?
    Has it worked, or was it unneccessary?
    The article about the hotel costs is headed with a picture of men desperately clinging to the sinking boat, and we know the bodies of their family members are floating in that wreckage.
    The story about the funerals showed pictures children in mourning and tiny coffins, and the question up for consideration was the cost of the funerals. The fact that children are STILL in detention totally escapes the attention of the writer and commenters. Is the discussion about ending detention of refugees sparked at all by the sight of these people’s sufferings? No.
    Lady MacBeth’s spirits who tend on mortal thoughts appear to have done a super job on Australians. We make me sick.

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