How much attention should a news organization pay to the comments on its Web site? Should comments from users ever drive coverage? Is it ever appropriate to shut off comments altogether? BBC news manager Peter Horrocks raises these questions in a thoughtful examination of the issues surrounding user-generated content. Horrocks reveals that the BBC briefly considered turning off its comment function after the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, because so many posts were anti-Muslim. In the end, the comments stayed open.
The BBC has made a commitment to listening to the views of its audience. And I have no doubt how any attempt to down-play or disregard their comments would have been seen – as censorship and a conspiracy by the BBC to prevent their strongly held views.
Horrocks says the voice of the audience has expanded the range of stories and perspectives the BBC covers. Users themselves have contributed coverage of breaking news and their comments have led to stories that network might otherwise have missed. But does that mean the users are driving the BBC’s news agenda?
Not at all, and they shouldn’t, says Horrocks, if for no other reason than the fact that less than 1% of BBC online users make comments on the site.
Some commentators have argued that responding to the interests of the 1% of participators could attract an audience far wider than those who simply want to get involved. And others have speculated that this could be the key to engaging lost news audiences or even to re-ignite public interest in political engagement. I’m afraid I see little evidence of that. There is no reason why passive news consumers or citizens will be drawn to any organisation’s journalism simply because it is palpably audience-driven. Of course this wider range of sources should improve our story-gathering and the quality of what we do, but that still needs to be assessed and delivered through an expert journalistic prism. I have seen no evidence that raw audience interaction or unvarnished news direct from the audience is more attractive than professional news.
At the same time, he says, it’s incredibly labor intensive to try to extract editorial value from user contributions. The BBC is now exploring technological fixes, including the possible use of “intelligent software” to sift through the comments for nuggets that journalists should pursue.
One final note: Horrocks’ column is posted on the BBC editors blog, which launched in 2006. Its goal is to help the BBC be open and accountable, which is pretty much the same reason CBS launched its Public Eye blog a year earlier. Sadly, that blog is now dormant. It was a great experiment in transparency and it’s a shame it didn’t last.