Blowback: Do comments scare off sources?
It took time and patience, but eventually I got Michael Sutherland to talk to me. I was interested in writing a piece about debt collection during the Great Recession. But I wanted to tell the story not just through the eyes of consumers—as those stories are often told—but from the perspective of debt collectors themselves.
The only problem was that very few in the industry would talk to me. They were worried about how they would be portrayed because, let’s be honest, the industry’s reputation is as bad as they come. They’re more known for harassing calls than for the money they pump back into the economy or the customers they help rescue from under a pile of bills. And they figured I was out to tell the same old story.
Finally Sutherland agreed. He was hesitant and told me so. But I assured him I was committed to being fair and accurate—and telling the collectors’ side of the story. And so, with some reluctance, he let me into his firm. I interviewed him, his managers, his employees. I spent hours there, trying to get a sense, as best I could, of what it’s like to call people all day asking for money at a time when so many are hurting. The result was, I thought, a balanced story that took readers inside a debt collection firm.
After the story appeared, I sent Sutherland an email asking him what he thought. He wasn’t happy with the drawing that accompanied the story, a couple of sharks circling a woman. And he wasn’t happy with the comments that readers posted on washingtonpost.com about the story.
You could hardly blame him. The Post's guidelines say that the site bans any "inappropriate" content and defines that as anything that is "libelous or defamatory," " is obscene, pornographic, or sexually explicit," and "contains or advocates illegal or violent acts" among other things. But among the comments were these hard-to-stomach posts:
“What scum....Scam-acne-face-Sutherland and all his little minions, scum....special place in Hell for them,” wrote someone who went by the screen name griffmills.
“They should be hung up by their private parts and shot,” wrote billdinva2.
Sutherland said such comments were “why I was so hesitant in doing an interview” in the first place. “Lesson learned," he wrote, "I will never allow for another interview.”
Jay Ferrari also came under attack on the Post site's comments board after he was the subject of a story by reporter Michael Rosenwald examining people's obsession with smart phones. The article described how Ferrari played chess on his iPhone even while bathing his 4-year-old daughter. The comments were withering.
panamajack wrote: "I guess Ferrari should be thankful he found his feet wet rather than the body of his children floating in the tub because this stupid b@st@rd doesn't have the presence of mind to put that blasted gadget down so he can focus on his children! Of course, if his child drowns in the tub, Ferrari would be the first to blame his service provider for his stupidity. People can hide behind this garbage only so long."
At first, Ferrari " tried my best to resist weighing in," he said in an email afterward. But ultimately, he couldn't help himself.
"Good people," he wrote on the comment board, "as the father featured at the beginning of the article, please know that my oldest daughter, four years of age, is capable of entering and exiting the tub on her own, knows how to control the faucet, and delights in dousing me whether or not I have an iPhone in hand. If I had been sitting tub-side engrossed in a book, I doubt this anecdote would invite so much ire. Technophobia is as old as Guttenberg; the rants remain quaint.
"Also know that as a work-from-home father, I get much more quality time with both daughters than the typical 9-to-fiver, devoting much of the day to reading, outdoor play, and art. Please feel free to keep in touch regarding my daughters' physical health, mental development, and social skills. I'll offer the presumption that they are and will remain quite adequate."
What astonished Ferrari most "was the lack of civility in many posts -- the profanity, suggested violence, etc.," he said. But, unlike Sutherland, the experience hasn't scared him off, should a reporter come knocking again: "I certainly wouldn't have a problem being in another article," Ferrari said. The positive comments he got from friends and family "overwhelmed the cranks, crackpots, and curmudgeons," he said.
The issue certainly isn't new. In 2007, then-Post ombudsman Deborah Howell dedicated a column to the debate over comments, saying they “can be raw, racist, sexist and revolting.” She urged The Post to monitor them “much more vigorously.”
The Post uses automated filters to screen out some offensive language from comment boards; in addition, reporters and producers check the comments and take down posts that they find to be unacceptably abusive or tasteless. Readers can also flag offensive content for Post producers to look at for possible removal. But in general, the debate and discussion on the comment boards remains freewheeling, to say the least.
I’m not here to say whether the comment board is a good thing or a bad thing, or what The Post should do about them. That’s the ombudsman’s domain. But like any reporter, I try to protect my sources from any outfall that might result from agreeing to go on the record, even though that’s not always possible. These days, opening up to a reporter sometimes means getting beat up on the web site's comment boards. Will sources become more reluctant to talk to reporters because they fear what the posters will say about them?
I wrote Sutherland another email asking him about the comments and how they affected him. Did he think we should get rid of them, or better police them?
I didn’t hear back.
What's your view on comments on blogs and news articles? Are the comment boards a cesspool that needs to be shut down, a valuable reflection of readers' perspectives, or a work-in-progress--an early stab at finding the right forum for interaction between readers and reporters? Tell us about your experiences with comment boards...on ours, below.
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