Local Newspaper Wants Online Comment Section to Stick to the Facts | WCAI

Local Newspaper Wants Online Comment Section to Stick to the Facts

Oct 24, 2019

Newspaper websites have become a place for readers not just to learn new information; they have become public arenas to for readers to air their take on the day's news. But, not all comments contain factual information. The Martha's Vineyard Times has put a stop to some of that—at least when it comes to talking about climate change.

 The editorial board published a note to readers explaining why they will now ban comments that deny the existence of climate change on their website. WCAI Morning Edition host Kathryn Eident talked with Martha's Vineyard Times News Editor George Brennan about what prompted the decision.  

Eident George, talk about what prompted this editorial; it came out in the thick of when there was a lot of talk about climate change due to some protests that were happening in New York and around the world.

Brennan Sure. As an editorial board, we've been talking about this issue for quite a while and what role the newspaper could play in educating the public about climate change and sea level rise. And then many young people got involved in the initiative led by Swedish teen Greta Thunberg. We saw some of the online comments coming in, and some of them, frankly, were cruel and disgusting, and it put us in a terrible position.

Eident Do you think that this particular situation stood out from other situations where you might see maybe trolls online? And do you think that it's a groundswell of people, or do you think you're seeing comments along these lines from maybe a small number of people?

Brennan You know, this isn't the first time we had a conversation about it. One of the other times and it involved children again. We did a lot of coverage about plastic free MV, a group of young people who have really taken some stands on some issues on the island. And there were people commenting on them, too.

Do I think it's a small segment? Yes, I do. But really, any segment of the population where you're allowing them to talk about things that aren't fact based on an article that is fact based--these are scientific facts. We are being impacted by climate change, yet we're allowing people to comment on it, saying it's a hoax. And, you know, calling into question the research done by scientists as close as Woods Hole, these scientists aren't just working in a vacuum somewhere, they're in our backyard. And we're letting people denigrate them by calling their vast years of research a hoax.

Eident Do you feel that it could get tricky at times in deciding what to keep and what you may not choose to allow on the website?

Brennan Well, we do moderate comments, so that gives us a chance to take a deep breath, read the comment. And if we have questions, go back and say, what are you basing this on? I'll ask a commenter to provide some documentation for what it is that they're saying. And if they can't provide some data, it's not going to be published.

You know, we try to give tremendous latitude on comments. We make them anonymous for a reason. Some people feel like they can't write a letter to the editor because it might affect their job or their standing in the community, so they feel as though they can only comment on something if they can do so under a pseudonym. We understand that and we want to allow for that.

But, you know, I sort of equate it with: imagine if we had the Internet and we had online commenting at the time that explorers were going out discovering new places. At a certain point, we'd draw the line and say, you know what? There's just too much documentation that the world is round and we're not going to say that it's flat anymore.

Eident I can hear someone saying, why wouldn't you just shut down the comment section entirely?

Brennan Yeah, well, I think there's room for debate on how the island goes about dealing with climate change and how it goes about dealing with sea level rise. For example, there's a pretty good-sized development planned for Beach Road. Housing is really important on the island, especially affordable and workforce housing. However, Beach Road floods every time there's a storm, and it's getting worse. You can debate whether that's a good place for the development, given this set of facts.  What's not fair game is saying "just let them build it because climate change is a hoax".

Eident What have you heard from readers? Have you heard encouragement or have you heard pushback?

Brennan Well, we've had both. Certainly, we've had more encouragement and then pushback. A couple of signed letters to the editor from people, you know, saying "thank you. It's about time". And of course, there are people who are saying this is a First Amendment thing. "How dare you shut this down" comments. But it's really not a First Amendment thing in my mind—and in the minds of the rest of the editorial board here. It has to do with not allowing people to just say whatever it is they want. You can still do that. There are forums for you. This is just not going to be that forum anymore. Occasionally we might make a mistake and allow a comment through that doesn't have the science behind it. Someone can point that out to us and we'll take a second look at it.  At the same time, we might deny a comment and the person makes a good case that we should have published it, we'll look at that. You know, we're just trying to get beyond those types of things so we can really engage in a robust to be in a conversation that will help lead this island forward.

Eident That is George Brennan, news editor of The Martha's Vineyard Times. And you can find this editorial on mvtimes.com. George, thanks so much for talking with us.

Brennan Well, thank you for taking the time to hear about it.

*This transcript has been lightly edited for grammar and clarity.