Sacramento Bee's Comments Section: Free Speech or Unfiltered Ignorance?

By Ashley Robinson

I will scroll to the bottom of a story posted on the Sacramento Bee website just knowing waiting there is dirt, grime, sludge and corruption at the bottom of the page … like some horrific car accident you can’t stop playing in your mind.

It sits there, waiting to suck you in … hoping you take part, hoping you get pulled into the mud … hoping you resort to their level.

That is the feeling I have about the comments section at the bottom of almost every Sacramento Bee story posted on their site.

Don’t Hate the Player, Hate the Game

I can say with all honesty and integrity, it has nothing to do with the Sacramento Bee and their journalistic mission for free speech. It is MY choice to continue scrolling to the very, very, VERY bottom. And it is the choice of Sacramentans to abandon their filter of decency/maturity to post the trash they do.

I’m glad Sac Bee doesn’t filter the comments more than they do as they are encouraging discussion, insight and elaboration – something we need while reflecting the greater good of this bit of news, no matter how hard or soft the piece may be. (Other newspapers throughout the state actually pay for third parties to monitor their comments section on a very constant basis, therefore construing the feedback of the papers’ articles and thus changing public perception. Yuck!)

Is it just that Sacramento is a hyper-partisan city? Many of us work in state government or have close connections to it, so maybe we feel we are also entitled to share our opinions? Or, are we deep down at heart still a hick little town plagued with ignorance that in very few mediums rears its ugly head? Or is this just how the world works, and maybe I am just sensitive to polarized reality?

As I write this, one of the top stories is about the untimely and sad death of a baby anteater at the Sacramento Zoo. Harmless, right?

One person commented: “I suppose now the ant population in Sacramento will go out of control and the state will have to allocate several million for ant removal. I expect PETA … will interfere with that effort, boosting costs into the 10s of millions. I reckon with a name like Amber [name of anteater mother], we can expect some traffic-slowing message on the amber alert boards Friday morning about this critter. Where will it stop!”

Um, seriously? You took 25 minutes out of your day (it must have been at least that long with what little intelligence you appear to have) to write this? About an anteater dying at the Zoo. Wow. Thank you for your invaluable contribution to the world.

Another heart-breaking (totally on the deeper level) story is about the poor little 3-year-old who was beaten to death, allegedly by his young African-American parents.

Instead of crying out for changes in social consciousness and educating young parents about appropriate levels of discipline, we get this: “I don’t know about you but this is just another good example why we should allow linch [sic] committees back on the streets like the old days. There wouldn’t be these problems if enough of these people were strung up and hung. This goes for molesters, beaters, robbers, gangsters, and public people who milk the system.”

You truly believe that is the solution to the problem? Really? Not only is that ridiculously irrational, it is backed by a history of racism.

Do you actually say these words OUT LOUD to other people before you write them? I highly doubt it. But masked by some ridiculous sign-on name and an anonymous avatar, no one knows who you are and consequently you can’t be identified as the societal scum that you are.

As the wise Emily Currin said to me, “No one ever flipped anyone off from a covered wagon.” In today’s world of veiled anonymity, we are allowed to abandon our filters and say whatever harebrained idea pops up, no matter how filled with hatred it may be because we have the mediums to pursue them.

Tom’s Take

So, I thought I would ask Tom Negrete, the Bee’s online editor about it. Well, Tom and his staff have looked at different perceptions of the comments section. He said that only a small, but strong, percentage of readers comment (only about 2-5%) on a regular basis and ultimately view the section as positive. It’s the readers who don’t view it very often that see the darker side of it.

Well, maybe we don’t go down, literally, to that level on a regular basis because we don’t like what we see?

They have looked at having the author of the article take part in the discussion of the comments section. Metro columnist Marcos Breton ventured into the discussion, only to find mixed results. Some viewed his participation as humanizing the story, and some viewed it as an intrusion of the readers’ space to have an unbiased discussion.

Breton and the Bee saw it as just too time-consuming. Too many accusations to defend? To many questions to answer?

The upside to all of this is that there are options. Readers can “hide” comments they don’t like/agree with. Not all stories see negative backlash. If you don’t want to be succumbed to the muck, avoid stories about the legalization of marijuana, same-sex marriage and immigration. And if the editor thinks conversation has gotten too intense, they can shut down the ability to leave a comment.

In the end, Tom said he is often enlightened by what readers have to say. As Tom reads the comments more than I do, he says he is often inspired by the insight readers have to offer, their compulsion to share and their constructive criticism.

Well, I’m glad someone can see the positive.

A Lesson to Us All

I think, and I say this with VAST EXPERIENCE, we should always think of the consequences before writing them out. No matter how anonymous we try to be.

Just take the proverbial covered wagon moving in the slow lane to the internet’s high-speed open road and don’t get your wheels stuck in the muddy comment section. Good luck.

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3 Comments

  1. Kara says

    I have told myself many times to just stop reading the comments. I look at the ones about education (I’m a teacher) and find myself vilified. And people throw “facts” around like you could make up facts out of thin air.

  2. Chantel Elder says

    I LOVE this post! Whenever I read comments at the end of articles that offer no solution or rational thought I get so steaming mad….and then I remember that they have to live with themselves and I just feel sorry for them.

    Well written Ashley, love it!

  3. Steve says

    Nice column. They wouldnt allow these comments in a letter to the editor, but they allow them online. Why? Money. The publisher can say there are more clicks on the article and sell that to advertisers. Sad but true. Same at sacramento press.

    NY Times had a great article last week on how papers are revisiting this issue. I wish the Bee would. They dont seem to be interested. http://www.nytimes.com/2010/04/12/technology/12comments.html?scp=1&sq=online%20comments&st=cse

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