A question about the value of online discussion free-for-alls

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Ten days ago, the New York Times posted Tara Parker-Pope’s column, “No Answers for Men With Prostate Cancer.” It discussed the federal agency report that concluded that nobody can tell men with prostate cancer what type of treatment is most likely to save their lives – or that any treatment is better than doing nothing.

Many news organizations, when they post such columns online, now offer readers the chance to comment online. As of this morning, 141 people have sent in comments in 10 days. They are all visible following the story posted online. Ms. Parker-Pope has responded to a few of the comments online, but other user comments raise assertions, make claims, ask questions – all unanswered or unchallenged.

That’s disturbing for a number of reasons, the biggest one that it lends the credence of the New York Times‘ website to some spurious information posted on their site in an unchallenged manner.

I would suggest that if the Times is going to moderate some of the discussion, then it should moderate all of the discussion. And I realize what a tough task that would be, with 141 messages in 10 days.

But this should not just be a marketing move – that offering a sense of “online community” is good for business. Journalism principles should enter into this as well. But right now it looks like the New York Times has invited a conversation, got one, and now doesn’t know what to do with it.

And this trend is only going to deepen. Witness CNN’s I-Report feature that invites citizen journalism: “What’s happening where you are? Is news happening in front of your eyes? Pull out your camera and I-Report it for CNN.”

Democratization of news? Or abdication of journalistic oversight responsibility? Read the 141 messages (probably more by the time you get there) on the Times article above and make a judgment about whether the “community” discussion was worthwhile or not.

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February 15, 2008 at 9:34 pm

This is always a tough one.
As an aside, 141 comments to handle in ten days doesn’t seem to me to be an inordinate amount of work for the NYT to handle?
There are letters to the editor in the Daily almost every day that have factual errors in them. Does the Daily have a responsibility to correct them or make comments?
Best wishes,
Mr. B.

The Publisher

February 16, 2008 at 8:37 am

One of the ideals of journalism is that it always involves some form of editing – some form of editorial oversight. That’s one of the problems with the two media practices I identify.
There’s a difference, in my mind, between letters to the editor on a page that’s clearly labeled “Opinion” or “Editorials” or “Letters to the Editor” — and cacophony posted at the end of a vetted news story or column.