The comment section — that space on our website where readers can post reactions, opinions and questions below each article — has been a bit of a sore subject among news organizations. 

For newspapers, they are an extension of the age-old tradition of letters to the editor — an outlet for community opinions that fulfill part of the idealized public service role of the press. 

Unfortunately, the feature can quickly become a skewed representation of the community. Research has shown that online comments can foster antisocial behavior rather than true dialogue. 

The best way to prevent that is to enforce simple, transparent community policies. Our approach for several years has been to require you to create an account with a real name, avoid attacks and discriminatory language, and to leave out profanity and obscenity. 

Those are fine rules indeed, but they don't create conversation on their own. 

The prospect of evaluating every comment has become a burden for some news organizations, compelling them to drop comments completely. The largest may be NPR, which argued that it gets far better dialogue through social media and through direct interaction with listeners.

At the Missourian, we believe in conversation, so we took some time in the fall to closely study our comment section. Outreach team member Mary McIntyre took six month's worth of comments, crunched the numbers and gave us a snapshot:

  • 1,704 comments were posted by 257 unique accounts.

  • Of those, five accounts posted 63 percent of all comments. You might know their names if you've read our comment section: Joe Lanigan, Ed Lane, Ellis Smith, Mary Douglass and Richard Beard.

  • The vast majority of the remaining accounts posted five or fewer comments apiece. 

"I would've hoped to have found more diversity, as in more diversity of opinion and thought," McIntyre said. "I feel like most of the people who commented were all very similar thought-wise."

At other times, comments can become surprisingly bitter and offensive. On two stories in the last few months, we've taken the drastic step to turn off comments. Both were stories involving suicide or mental health.

Moving forward, we're doing a few things to re-emphasize the role of your voice in our coverage. 

  • We are recognizing some of our best comments online, in print and on our social media platforms in a regular feature called "Community Conversations."  
  • When we find a lack of comments on a story we know people should be talking about, we're going to dispatch our outreach team to gather community reactions in person or create engaging ways to speak up online. 
  • We will continue to be selective about when and where we allow comments. For example, many crime briefs don't need comments, and some sensitive topics may be better served by an anonymous comment form that does not publish submissions until they are vetted. 

Why are we talking about opinions at a time when facts are the true center of the debate? We need to make sure the comment section helps us clarify issues, foster real conversation and take our coverage deeper. One of the leading reasons that users like to comment is to call us out on errors; that's why every article on our site carries a big button to report an error. 

If you've never posted a comment to our website, I get it. You either don't want to argue with anyone, or don't think your voice particularly matters, or that it won't make a difference if it's posted on an online forum.

Consider this your invitation to join in. We'll be listening. 

  • I'm director of community outreach for the Columbia Missourian.

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