The ‘comment’ game, part 2

By Bruce Mohl

As of this afternoon, 90 comments had been posted on Boston.com about the Boston Globe’s story about Don Chiofaro’s clash with Mayor Thomas Menino, and they seemed split fairly evenly between opponents of the controversial developer and opponents of the mayor.

As I reported last week, Chiofaro’s opponents knew the Globe story was coming and were urging their backers to weigh in with online comments about the proposed towers on the site of the Harbor Garage.

Tom Palmer, a former Globe development reporter now handling media relations for Harbor Towers residents opposed to the skyscrapers, sent out an email  to his clients explaining in detail how to post comments anonymously to the article. Palmer called the online comments, which are essentially a story-specific letters to the editor page, “an important and even necessary way to influence opinion.”

The whole episode showed how online comments are becoming a force in journalism, at least in the eyes of some people. Newspaper online comment sections are open to everyone, unlike the letters to the editor sections that appear in print editions. But the online comment sections are also subject to manipulation because little to no checking occurs on who is writing the comments. In theory, one person could write many comments on the same article.

David Beard, who oversees Boston.com for the Globe, acknowledged he doesn’t have a fleet of editors reviewing online comments as long as they meet the newspaper’s standards for decency. He said the comments on the Chiofaro story seemed to reflect both sides of the issue. “It looks like the system corrected for itself,” he said.

Palmer said in a telephone interview today that he had no way of knowing if his clients did comment because the comments are posted anonymously. “But I was happy to see our side was well represented by the people who did comment,” he said.

Casey Ross, the Globe reporter who wrote the Chiofaro story, didn’t see evidence of one side trying to stack the deck with comments. “The comments I read seemed reasonable, evidence a thoughtful conversation is happening, even if not between Chiofaro, Menino et al,” he said in an email.

NorthEndWaterfront.com picked up on the original CW Unbound post with a story about problems it has faced with anonymous commenters:

The abuse of website comments by anonymous posters with axes to grind was the primary reason why NorthEndWaterfront.com changed its comments policy to require real identities (with at least first names and last initials). Before the change, repetitive and often hateful posts were being made by biased parties in order to sway opinions. The trend away from anonymous comments is increasing (see this Media Nation post) and the newspaper sites may have to eventually make the change to real names as well. It results in fewer comments, but a much more meaningful discussion. In the meantime, when you read anonymous comments on these other websites, keep in mind the information is most likely bunk. (P.S. – Nothing against Harbor Towers residents, Tom Palmer, nor their position on the issue. I understand they are just reacting to the same anonymous posts made by the developer’s side.)

In his email to his Harbor Towers clients, Palmer said he had received assurances from Ross that his article wouldn’t be a “puff piece” about Chiofaro, and on that score Palmer said he was satisfied. “I thought Casey wrote a very fair story,” he said. “I haven’t felt that way about a lot of the coverage.”

 

Meet the Author

Bruce Mohl

Editor, CommonWealth

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.