Comments and credibility on news sites

A journo friend sent me this link and suggested it was one for NWN: An abusive battlefield for women at ADFA.

Many journos send me stories to blog about because they can’t. They have been silenced by heavy-handed policies that ban them from saying anything negative about their organisation and about their competition. Which means that anyone working for Fairfax or News Ltd can’t critique anything written by anyone else working for Fairfax or News Ltd. It’s something I’ve written about here before (in a post I had legalled yet my editor at the time still tried to bully me into removing it), and also in the NSW Writers’ Centre magazine, Newswrite, about how my job was waved in front of me when I wrote about one of the organisation’s other publications.

This silencing goes on in newsrooms too. In the last place I worked, any attempt to talk about the way we covered stories meant I was Trouble. A Difficult Employee. It meant I’d never get a pay rise, never get a promotion, and was encouraged to leave. Audiences (and journalists) were abandoning – and ridiculing – the publication, yet the editor, Mr Toupee, was not to be questioned. Surely the most obvious question to ask when audiences are laughing at you is: maybe we’re doin’ it wrong?

But I digress.

Back to the ADFA story:

MORE than 70 per cent of female students at the Australian Defence Force Academy (ADFA) have experienced some form of sexual harassment, according to a high-level inquiry.

Despite this, the majority of women surveyed by Sex Discrimination Commissioner Elizabeth Broderick were positive about the military academy.

The second sentence sits uneasily with me. Instead of giving more information about that statistic – and that 70 per cent of female cadets are sexually harassed is ridiculously, outrageously high – the journo (Ian McPhedran) moves on to imply that the Broderick review says “hey, women get sexually harassed but it doesn’t bother them so we shouldn’t worry about it”. The information in that second sentence is important, but it shouldn’t be used to dismiss the first sentence.

I’ve had jobs that I’ve enjoyed, even though some dickhead sexually harassed me. The douchecanoe wasn’t someone I worked for or with, just someone in the same company on a different publication, so the two issues were separate. I’m not saying this is the universal experience. But it is tied to what the McPhedran article doesn’t mention – and I don’t know if the Broderick review asked – about whether the harassers a small group of fuckwads or if they are the majority of cadets? If it’s the former, then it’s easier to stop. If it’s the latter, then there’s a cultural problem inside ADFA and also outside ADFA if we are raising loads of people who think this is ok.

And, of course, since the article is about men doing bad things to women, the journalist has used language that removes the men from their actions. Check this out:

The Broderick Inquiry is one of six launched by Defence Minister Stephen Smith in response to the “skype sex scandal” earlier this year when secret film of a female student having sex was shared among male cadets.

There is no mention of the male cadet who made the film. There is no mention of the plan the male cadets made beforehand to film the sex. The film just happened. Possibly as the female cadet was having sex with herself. Oops. I don’t know about you, but that happens to me all the time.

But the true “joy” in this article is in the five comments that some bright spark at decided to publish. I hate to think of the ones they didn’t publish:

Ubique1964 of Sydney Posted at 8:16 AM November 03, 2011
LOL is she really serious:- Ms Broderick has made 30 recommendations for cultural change to attract more women into ADFA and the military. They can’t control the woman in the Defence Force now and they want to add more fuel to the fire, look out fellas. Yes that is right, I AM implying that it is not always the blokes fault.

Yep, that’s right, ADFA can’t control the women who are forcing men to sexually harass them. Probably by wearing their army uniforms just a little too tight. And saying hello to fellow cadets. That’s a true sign of a slut who is asking for it.

Dan of Sydney Posted at 9:04 AM November 03, 2011
This sounds like a friday night at any pub in Australia. A storm in a teacup.

Dan of Sydney likes to sexually harass women on Friday nights. My guess is he’s a complete loser with no social skills who gropes women in crowded venues because that’s as close as he’ll ever get to a woman’s body.

Ex Digger of 10 years of Sydney Posted at 10:55 AM November 03, 2011
And if they can’t handle the unwelcome suggestions, I wonder what will happen to their feelings once some insenstive jerk starts firing Ak-47 rounds or an RPG at them! Perhaps they could complaint to the UN about the unwelcome advances made by the bullets and how the enemy should be made to stop such actions against females. And then of course, see a lawyer about compensation… Heaven forbid we should hurt anybodys feelings whilst training them to be unfaltering “leaders” on the battlefield. Nobody likes a soldier until the enemy is at the gate.

Can you imagine having to work with this knob? Being groped by your workmates is just part of the training, and if it hurts your feelings, then you aren’t tough enough.

I judge a news site by the stories they run and by the comments they publish. To be seen as a credible news source, you can publish the stories and comments that add to intelligent/useful discussion, or you can be the

14 responses to “Comments and credibility on news sites

  1. The worst part is this. Why do these websites allow comments at all?

    Are they keen to facilitate an exchange of ideas? Is it to provide a forum for feedback to the journos? Is it to seek “further information” about stories?

    I doubt it. Seems to me that the only reason is to keep people clicking back to the page to see if their comments have upset someone.

    In other words, to drive up visitor numbers to keep more advertising dollar.

    • Yeah, that’s pretty much it. News organisations call it UGC but that’s just because they want readers to think they are contributing. No one but the uni student employed to moderate comments ever looks at them. And usually the first dozen or so are “how is this news?” followed by “this is all Ju-LIARS’s fault”. (Sadly, the latter get published, particularly on News Ltd sites.)

      Journos are told not to waste their time responding to reader comments. And to an extent, that’s fair enough – if they spend all day responding to comments, they won’t get any work done. But they rarely read the comments anyway, and certainly never see the ones that aren’t published. And it’s the comments that aren’t published – because they criticise the journo/news outlet – that they should see. Mind you, most people who read an article don’t comment on it, so the comments shouldn’t be seen as being representative.

      In the last newsroom I worked, I did some research in my spare work time into improving the quality of reader comments. It’s something that a lot of US news sites have experimented with and found things that worked. I was told that it wasn’t something the editor gave a shit about.

  2. Some of the reader comments sections on mainstream news websites are a source of national embarrassment. Freedom of speech is important (and, sure, there are ignorant/sexist/racist/homophobic elements in lots of other countries) but no one seems to be able to spout hate-filled, “shout-before-you-think” vitriol on mainstream news websites quite like Australians. Seriously, it saddens me.

    I think that’s one of the reasons why there’s so much ridiculous hatred of Julia Gillard right now, for example. All these cowardly readers posting vicious and sexist rants under an anonymous username means that a lot of people who happen to dislike Gillard (as they are entitled to) read those comments and start thinking that’s an acceptable way to have a debate. I’m not sure what the solution is. Perhaps readers should have to disclose their full name on any mainstream news website so that they’re forced to, you know, actually think a bit before posting?

    • I agree. Several news sites have improved the quality of reader comments by insisting on real names (eg, SignOn in San Diego), and Poynter found that news sites using Facebook got comments of a higher quality. I particularly love the comment from Jimmy Orr, online managing editor of the LA Times: “Trolls don’t like their friends to know that they’re trolls.”

      Of course, there are privacy issues involved in requiring full names to comment, and MSM websites should allow for anonymous comments on sensitive issues. The thing is, when a member of the public is interviewed on tv their name is always displayed, so why should it be different on a news site?

      It also comes back to what a news site wants their moderators to do. If you just want as many comments as possible, then your moderators will publish all the stupid name-calling and nastiness and pointless “I blame X for something that is clearly nothing to do with them”. If you want genuine discussion, you moderate for that. I’ve had posts with over 200 comments (on par with a popular story on a news site) and I have moderated them all to ensure the discussion is reasonably polite.

      • Yes, the moderation you do is really good on ‘controversial’ topics – makes it a much nicer place for discussion.

        • Thank you. Sometimes some aggressive comments slip through, but there are two reasons why I do this: firstly, to make a point of saying that this sort of comment is not ok here (and to point to my comment policy), and secondly, because I know the person it’s directed at will promptly put them in their place with a comment of intelligence that will make the original commenter look like an idiot. I hope no one minds that I do that. I’m also fairly forgiving of regular commenters because I feel like I know where they’re coming from.

  3. Sometimes (on the Guardian site, NY Times, and on SMH – I don’t read any others) the comments are more insightful, witty and well written than the news story.

  4. I agree viv comments at news sites and am stunned that such a high percentage of women are harassed at ADFA although I suspect that it may be significantly high at other universities as well. I was in disagreement with Ms Broderick about her view that the ‘warrior culture’ at ADFA and the wider military needs to change to allow women to compete. We are trying to produce warriors here and softening up that aspect of military training is self evidently absurd. This topic conveniently segues into an article I read in the latest Infantry Magazine which I will attempt to transcribe and post on my blog soon. It is a very realistic and reasonably balanced view of the issue of women in Infantry.

    • The rate of harrassment of women is universally high in American universities: haven’t seen discussion of the topic re: Australian unis. I’m guessing the high rates are connected to women having to live on campus with men who wish to abuse and humiliate them.

  5. I’ve got a rule of thumb that seems to hold true most of the time: the number of comments that an article incites is directly proportional to the quality of content in the aforementioned piece. As they say, shit in, shit out.

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