Journalists, bias and comments

Anyone who has read this blog for long might get the impression that I am anti-mainstream media or anti-journalism. I don’t blame you for thinking this because I am always blaming this, that and the other on the media. I’ve done it twice this week alone, even in this period of “light blogging”.

I must come across one of those awful people who always manages to blame everything on the media. But while occasionally I have a beef with certain aspects of the mainstream media, I know that it would be grossly unfair to tar all journalists with the same brush.

Look in the comments section on any major website, and you will find loons aplenty. I used to be a big advocate of letting people comment on MSM news articles. I thought the BBC’s terrible Have Your Say was just a one-off accident due to the fact that it was among the first major attempts at allowing comments on MSM websites. Now that comments are commonplace, it is clear that it was a mistake to believe that it would enhance accountability or improve debate.

The first time I truly realised that comments on MSM sites were almost universally awful was when introduced them. I wrote about it at the time. The comment box obviously just attracts loudmouths and morons. Anyone looking for good debate would be sorely disappointed.

This isn’t just a problem with the media. Anyone who has read the comments on huge websites like Digg or YouTube will have probably found their inner misanthrope jumping out and despairing about the state of humankind. It seems as though the bigger the website is, the worse the comments are.

Anseo at North to Leith has written a brilliant post about the comment sections of both and The Herald‘s website.

I`m getting more than a wee bit pissed off at some of the bloody loonies who leave comments on the Scotsman and the Herald’s websites. I`m know a great many of the Scottish Press Corp and on the whole they have my respect. Are there those who are members of the Labour party? Yes, but there are also members of the SNP – and party membership generally among the press corp is very very low…

Some so-called cyber-nats (if they actually are nats and not simply flamers or stirrers) seem to take any story which has any criticism of the SNP as evidence that the journalist behind the piece is some form of Labour ‘fellow traveller’.

Which, in short, is total pish.

Anseo’s description is sadly true. Visit the Scotsman or Herald comments sections and all you will find is a bunch of shouty SNP / independence supporters whining about the great unionist conspiracy and generally making themselves look a bit stupid.

I have sometimes wondered if there is some kind of Ron Paul-style alert system telling SNP activists whenever a relevant story is published. But if this was the case, they would surely have stopped by now, because they will have realised that anyone reading the comments will just get the impression that SNP supporters are a bunch of morons — which isn’t the case.

The likely explanation is that there really is an army of people waking up and visiting the Scotsman first thing in the morning to fire off a few diatribes. I would say they are people who have too much time on their hands, but that’s not necessarily the case because they obviously don’t spend very much time constructing these sledgehammers.

I highly doubt there is any institutional political bias in the Scottish media. My guess is that there are fair few Labour supporters working in the Scottish media, but this is surely a reflection of the huge base of support Labour has in Scotland anyway. In fact, I am surprised that the SNP haven’t been given a rougher ride in the media as a whole since they won last year’s election.

It can be a fun game to guess which parties the major journalists support. But it’s just that — a game. Readers of Brian Taylor’s excellent blog will be aware that he leans to the orange side — but only in football. In politics? Who knows. He is very even-handed. It would be like knowing who David Dimbleby votes for.

These accusations of bias can affect more than just politics. Sport is a prime example. Just look at the many people who (either with their tongues in their cheeks or not) accuse various football pundits of secretly supporting Glasgow Rangers. Chick Young doesn’t really support St Mirren, they say. It’s all a smokescreen as part of the great Rangers conspiracy.

As Anseo points out, the reality is almost certainly that the main political commentators are not aligned to any particular party at all. After all, that is the case with most people. Indeed, I am rather suspicious of anyone who identifies too closely with a political party.

Anseo’s conclusion is neat, and brings us back to the subject at hand:

So to all those supposed cyber-nats out there if you fancy putting your own brand of loony views on the internet…get a blog (like the rest of us loonies)…and try and at least engage in debates rather than simply abuse.

I couldn’t agree more. Increasingly it looks as though introducing comment facilities on media websites are a mistake. They add either no value or negative value to the website. I am not the only one to have come to this conclusion.

A couple of months back a story caught my eye where an expert in online discussion said that some newspapers have made a bit of a hash of introducing comments to their websites. Robert Marcus reckons the problem is the lack of community:

News sites should be wary of comment areas being dominated by campaigners or those seeking ‘their name in lights’, a phenomenon that can occur because of a lack of ‘friendliness’ and community between readers and journalists in this area, he added.

I personally think it might be to do with the size of websites. If a website has a large audience (and therefore a large number of contributors), then the only way to attract attention is to use attention-seeking tactics. Nuanced debate will inevitably fall by the wayside.

I agree with Anseo that people who want to scratch the commenting itch should start up a blog. Despite my bleak outlook on user generated content on the MSM, I still believe that bloggers have inherent qualities that lead to good debate.

Okay, so some blogs are not all that great, and we can probably all think of some big blogs that have bad debate. Cassilis wrote about this last week:

Can there be any more dispiriting a sight than the phrase ‘Comments (86) – Add your own’ – you just know there aren’t 86 insightful observations there (you’ll be lucky to find 6) and the exchanges no more deserve the term dialogue than a rowdy pub brawl does. The invitation to ‘Add a Comment’ feels like being tapped on the shoulder at a football match and asked why you’re not shouting with the other 40,000….

This is the same problem that faces all other websites — the bigger the website, the worse the debate. But for the likes of medium sized blogs like this, and upstarts, blogging is a breath of fresh air and the comment sections are generally good.

There are a few reasons for this. Firstly, blogging is a skill; it’s difficult. How many of us have seen upstart bloggers give up after a couple of weeks? Secondly, bloggers are held to account in the comments section and by other bloggers. You have to be prepared to defend what you say. As such, what you say has to be robust and sensible enough in the first place. Thirdly, trolls get ignored on their own blogs — it’s only when they go elsewhere that they can get any attention.

I admit that this is a rather elitist approach. But if you want good debate you have to set the barrier at an appropriate level.

The loons who dispose of their verbal diarrhoea on popular websites are polluters. Websites like and The Herald should perhaps consider removing the comments facilities.

But that needn’t mean there should be no discussion about their stories. In its place they could — and should — have a system like pingbacks or a Technorati widget so that readers can see what bloggers have to say about the story. The standard of debate would surely rise.


  1. To be perfectly honest, flaming partisan loons are among the least problems affecting the comments sections of newspaper websites. At least they usually write in proper sentences, and you can at a minimum identify what bias they’re coming from. As someone’s who’s had to moderate the comments on a national newspaper website as a job, I feel fairly confident in saying that the biggest problem is the sheer number of frothing mentalists with little grasp of either coherent English or elementary logic in any form… no matter how dreadful and blithering you think comments can get, there’ll always be someone who shocks you with the sheer depth of their failed brain. And there’s hundreds, thousands of them. You can’t delete them all. They cannot be bargained with. They can’t be reasoned with. They don’t feel remorse, or shame, or embarrassment. And they absolutely will not stop, until you are a weeping puddle of despair on the floor.

  2. Tom is absolutely right.
    The current atrocious state of the UK’s education system can be viewed daily on websites, and it is a one in a thousand chance of finding a lucid, logical, thought provoking and well spelt comment.

  3. The so-called ‘quality’ press has dumbed down a lot in the past few years – sloppy, badly-researched journalism will attract moronic commentators. I’ve no idea what is to blame for this – perhaps deadlines are tighter, perhaps reader feedback has steered it that way. And as for the BBC – well, seeing the presenters giggling whilst that nice Brian Cox was trying to explain gravity the other morning…that was the last straw for me. Dora the Explorer for *my* breakfast telly in future!

    I’m not an intellectual by any stretch of the imagination, but I’m desperate for a higher quality of journalism *and* discussion (though HYS is always good for a laugh, provided that you steer clear of the ‘serious’ topics, lest the despair for humankind gets too much)

  4. Agree.

    Very popular blogs – eg Iain Dale – have large numbers of comments; often a fair amount of abuse but very little debate. Smaller blogs have much more toing and froing between “commenters” and author with more chance of proper debate.

  5. Too right. The Scotsman comment section is sinking lower and lower. I can’t be bothered to read them as they are just a series of insider comments or shear garbage.

  6. The smaller blog with a regular readership would seem to be the way to go. Some of those – there was one specimen called ben-e-boi – you wonder what they think a comments section is for.

  7. “The current atrocious state of the UK’s education system can be viewed daily on websites”

    Hmm. I’m fairly sure that 500 years ago, idiots were passing around handwritten flyers saying “ye Archbishoppe of Canterburye iss a veritable cunte, who wouldst surely hand over thy daughters to bee violated by Saracens”.

  8. Before I blogged, I was a chatter. And it is in chat that one learns the true extent of mankind’s idiocy. What you are witnessing on the MSM and popular blogsites is the norm – the terrible truth is that most people (in whatever age) have only a casual acquaintance with logic and gain their opinions by a process of osmosis from their peers. By writing such a reasonable and reasoned blog, you, good Doctor, mark yourself out as a member of the insignificant minority that is capable of thought. Come the revolution, you and others like you will be first for the guillotine. Such is life.

    The best lack all conviction, while the worst
    Are full of passionate intensity

    W.B.Yeats, The Second Coming