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Yes, we read your comments (& sometimes cringe)


Michael Williamson and I walk along a street in Wyoming. Photo by Michael Williamson/The Washington Post

It wasn’t the cheap motel that smelled of death or the KFC that was protected by two layers of bulletproof glass but had run completely out of grilled chicken (and, to the outrage of the entire line of customers, ketchup!). It wasn’t even the nights passed with less than three hours of sleep.

None of those marked the lowest moment for Michael Williamson and me this summer as we traveled across the country for The Post, documenting the recession’s impact on our blog, Half a Tank.

We had anticipated the trip would be hard on us, emotionally and physically. We knew we’d be staying at inexpensive motels and eating whatever we could grab and go. We were prepared for that. We had braced for it.

What we didn’t anticipate was how much the comments from readers would affect us -- both the kind and cruel ones, but mostly the cruel ones.

From a blog entry about a Virginia woman who sat on the side of the road selling her belongings, including family heirlooms, to make ends meet:

Who the hell would buy any of that crap?

And this one that zeroed in on the subject of the story, and specifically on her weight:

[She] could stand to miss a few meals.

From an entry about a family living in a cheap motel, trying to save money to buy a house:

Show me a single mom and I'll show you a parasite draining the system. Single moms somehow feel they can breed all they want and our (sick) society rewards them for their behavior with programs such as WIC, foodstamps, Medicaid, etc. Single moms somehow have the narcissistic assumption that one is "entitled" to "the experience" of childbearing.

It didn’t seem to matter that the mother of two young children was married to man with a steady job. Some readers didn’t catch that.

There was a time when a man would do everything for his family, instead of sitting in a hotel, collecting welfare, food stamps, Medicaid and rental assistance from the state.

I’m not sure which comment out of the 900 or so the blog received set Michael off, but one morning as I got in the car, I could tell he was upset. I’d had days like that, too. We never got angry when people attacked us -- not that it didn’t sting -- but as journalists we know that the same story that moves one person will anger another. Plus, I am the youngest of four siblings, I can take it.

But it was different when we saw the people we were writing about and photographing get verbally pummeled. We know this happens with every story that appears online. I’ve warned subjects about it before (I once told a teenage boy who had come out to his parents as gay in middle school that if we ran his story, he’d probably see vicious comments on our web site. He and his mother decided to go ahead with the interview anyway). Still, for some reason, with this assignment, it was harder than usual to ignore the hurtful comments aimed at those who opened themselves up to our questions. Maybe it’s because Michael and I were meeting people at their most vulnerable. We knew just how battered many of these people were before they agreed to share every detail of their circumstances with thousands of strangers. We also knew they’d be reading the blog -- and the comments.

From a post about an unemployed couple hoping to buy a $186 ring from Walmart:

Wow. How redneck can you be. Can’t afford a $125 ring! I'm originally from Tennessee (although I don't live there anymore), and I just have to say; It's irresponsible rednecks like this that give all Southerners a bad name.

That’s not to say there weren’t many compassionate and thought-provoking comments. There were. Hundreds of them. Some of the readers even came back day after day (Thanks Jumpy66, sandrags and jimbo1949 -- whoever you are). There were even many critical comments that we welcomed because they added a layer to the discussion. They were biting, but thoughtful.

Readers often ask why we allow such harsh comments on the web site. The Post's policy is to remove comments that use unacceptable language or are overtly hateful, but in general, we let everyone have their say and trust that comment boards will essentially correct themselves, as readers call out fellow commenters who go over the top. Do you think that's enough protection, or should there be more policing of online comment boards here and on other news sites?

(More on reader comments tomorrow here on Story Lab.)

By Theresa Vargas  | December 14, 2009; 10:04 AM ET
Categories:  The Blowback, The inside story  
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There are many, many venues for completely unbridled, uncensored exchanges on the Internet, and anyone can start their own, so in general there is no reason that any particular forum shouldn't impose whatever limits it likes based on profanity, civility, etc. But as a newspaper, with your heightened interest in the First Amendment, I agree with the tacit decision that readers' input shouldn't be limited in any way unless it is explicitly profane or overtly malicious, even if it means I don't view the comments very often. When I want a more calm and less malicious discussion of an article, I'll share it on Facebook and get a discussion going there. (And that doesn't always work either, as my friends are not all of one mind, but they will usually be civil to one another for my sake.)

Posted by: MaxH | December 14, 2009 11:13 AM | Report abuse

I think the downturn in the economy and the government's reaction (both parties) have created a "me vs. the world" mentality that can be tough to break out of. As the government tries to help different groups of people, those that aren't helped by the programs, but are still feelings the effects of the recesion, feel ignored and cheated. Many news stories, especially those in the WaPo, that tell a human interest story about a person or family going through a tough time, end up mentioning the many public resources and dollars that are provided to these people. The stories many times detail a variety of poor/irresponsible decisions that put these people in these positions. It can be frustrating to those that made the responsible decisions to watch as the money taken from their paychecks is handed out to those that put themselves in financial harms way. The ability to lash out at some of these people from behind a computer screen is one of the few ways that many have to release this frustration. I like to think the comments left on blogs and other articles are simply frustrated people venting over their perception of being treated unfairly.

Posted by: justanotherguy | December 14, 2009 2:18 PM | Report abuse

I have to say while I support the idea of a comments section I often wonder why the Post allows comments on all articles. All you have to do is read the comments on a crime or accident story to see some horrible comments (not just heartless comments but some out and out racist comments) having nothing to do with the article. While I expect some spirited debate on issues like health reform or immigration I can't understand why the Post has a comment section on other articles.

Posted by: LionelMandrake | December 14, 2009 3:58 PM | Report abuse

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