Media Adviser is an advice column from journalist and psychotherapist Rebekah Holt that offers insight on recurring media dramas and their related ethical dilemmas.
Q: I work in news management in commercial TV news and have done for 22 years now and I want to ask about how to handle online comments. I started in TV before we had news presence online. If viewers had a problem, a complaint or a tip, then they called the reception and got put through to the news desk.
Because some people just like to complain, the reception staff got really good at weeding them out and putting those comments in a log book. Any calls that seemed real or serious were put through to the newsroom or people wrote letters and then emails as that took over as the main way of people making complaints or tips.
The log book read pretty much like the online comments on commercial news does now actually: 65% misogyny and/or racism, 20% agreement/disparagement with the story, 10% genuine critical thought and 5% of people mostly called Craig saying “fck wassup with his missus?”
Because online comments seemed to replicate the tone of the calls that went straight to the log book, I essentially never bothered with them because mostly it isn’t worth engaging with professionally or emotionally. For example we have never got a tip off or story lead through public online comments. Calls to the newsroom, yes, private messages, twitter DMs, yes.
Online public comments sections including Facebook — no.
Like most news organisations, we now hire online moderators and it’s the worst job going in my opinion. They burn out so fast it’s ridiculous — I have had news staff last longer in war zones.
I felt sure I had found a way of dealing, or rather not dealing, with online comments. But now we have a new head of digital marketing and they want to have endless soul-sucking meetings about audience engagement. They want me to encourage my over-worked reporters to “engage” with the commenters and, even worse, they want me to read this shit I have been avoiding for 22 bloody years and offer some “in depth analysis of audience trends in social media”.
Should I go against every instinct I have? Should I start reading the comments online?
News is in the battle for its life and it is not a war that is going to be won in the comments section with Craig. Tell digital marketing to stop grasping for clicks in the shallowest end of the pool. They need to sod off and let you do your job.
Their job should include working out how to fund news coverage. Your job is to get stories over the line and on air. Your job is to teach younger journos to hunt down tips and leads and turn them into a story that even Craig can understand in about one minute and 30 seconds every night and that doesn’t get your arse sued off.
Because this is the news, not the fucking weather.
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