A Hurricane of News and Views

27 08 2011

By looking at ABC.com’s coverage of Hurricane Irene that has spanned the past couple of days, it is evident that the way social media and news consumer input can be integrated to complement the traditional method of reporting news is still not quite complete.  With the immediacy of information, photographs and reaction that both the internet and social media can provide, it leads to a double-edged sword that on one side can be viewed as a wealth of information but on the other hand can quickly turn into information overload.

The home page of ABC news from Saturday night is a good example.  The main headline reads “HURRICANE IRENE: 8 Known Dead, 2 Million Without Power”.  Underneath the main headline lies the link to the full story which is flanked by two other links – to the Comments section and to the Photos/Videos section.  Events of recent times like the Japanese tsunami and the unrest in Iran have highlighted that in significant national events or natural disasters, immediate reaction from people on the scene can really add substance to a news story.  Comparing the Comments section and the Photos/Videos section shows what advantages and disadvantages can occur when using this information.

Firstly the negative side.  Contributors to the Comments section are asked if they have any more information on the topic.  However when you scan through the list of 148 (at the time of writing) comments they are mostly people having unrelated political arguments or are just randomly mocking each other.  For every worthy comment giving information from people who are affected, there are tens more that have no value at all.  There are also links to the ABC Facebook and Twitter pages where even more inane user comments accompany other stories about the subject.  On the other hand the Photos/Videos section really does show the advantage of consumer input.  The photos submitted (some from literally hours before) can take the reader/viewer directly to the scene in a way newspapers can only do the following day at the earliest.

In Vadim Lavrusik’s article about how the web era is leading to the rethinking of the way stories are structured he notes that “conversation around the story has become, at this point, almost as important as the story itself”.  Positioning the Comments link directly beside the actual link to the story only enforces his point.  Lavrusik also argues that context is one of the most crucial features in online storytelling and it appears as though ABC still have to find the right balance between what provides good context to a story (eg – the Photos/Video section or Live Storm Tracker) and what does not add a great deal of context to a story (eg – the unedited Comments section or links to more inane comments on their Facebook page).

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5 responses

28 08 2011
jthomp72

I like what you had to say about the ABC News website. It’s interesting to see a non American’s views on our own news. You make a very good point that oftentimes the comments on both the stories themselves and the social media sites aren’t very much related to the stories themselves at all, but my question to you is how can that be improved. I really am trying to think through that and I can’t come up with a good idea. So what do you think?

28 08 2011
gfisken

I think that news websites shouldn’t just offer these options just for the sake of it – particularly if they are positioning Comments sections so prominently alongside the main story. If they are going to offer this option for user contribution then they should fully commit to it and properly edit out unrelated material. If they only adopt a half-baked approach then it totally devalues the point of user contribution. They clearly monitor what photos and videos they put up from viewers/users so why should they not do it with comments or Facebook/Twitter posts.

29 08 2011
emeewes

This brings up an interesting point that I’ve been thinking a lot about over the past few days. Whose job would moderation be at that point? Would they hire x amount of people just to moderate the comments all day or would that responsibility be added to the ever-growing list of duties a reporter has?

I agree that there needs to be either a lesser emphasis on their comments–not recommended when they are “promoting conversation”– or a greater responsibility taken by the news organization in monitoring these sections of the website.

If you spend any time on user generated websites (E.g. Reddit or Digg) you can see the atrocious comments that fill nearly all of the comment sections. However, each of these also has a system of user-based voting per comment to either raise or lower its importance AND visibility. This ensures that comments that have very little to do with the conversation are not deleted outright, but spend their time drifting towards the bottom where less people will read them.

I think that a system such as that COULD help, however in the long run I feel that organizations are just going to have to monitor the comments anyway. Does that mean taking out the ranking system? No, because I feel that it leads to some of the best points being lifted to the top for more visibility.

29 08 2011
gfisken

That is the problem with moderation, someone has to do it. The ranking system is a good idea but again to work properly would need some sort of moderation.

I think another of the problems with comments sections is the idea of a “Keyboard Mafia” – ie, people who hide behind usernames so feel they can write anything they want without trace, relevant or not. Possibly news websites could make people register with their own names and valid e-mail addresses in an effort to make actual people responsible for their comments. However I fear this is wishful thinking and would guess most news websites don’t care what the content of their comments sections are as long as they are shown to be offering them.

29 08 2011
jthomp72

Maybe it is just me, but the more ridiculous and half-baked the comments get, the more it devalues and discredits the news source as a whole and generally makes a giant mockery of the source as a whole.

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