Veteran reporter quits because of nasty online commenters

He isn’t the first journalist—nor PR client—to lament the nasty nature of online comment sections. What are PR pros, and newspapers, doing to confront the problem?


Journalists are supposed to have thick skin, hardened over the years by covering the endless stream of news and taking beatings by editors, sources, and the public.

But one veteran journalist decided he’s throwing in the towel in the new year. He’s finally had enough of the nasty reader comments and the daily grind.

Seattle Times sports columnist Steve Kelley, after 40 years and millions of words, quietly wrote his final column last week.

In an interview with the Seattle Weekly, Kelley blamed covering the same stories over and over, but also said he was driven out by the steady stream of nasty reader online comments.

“The reader comments section, it’s a free-for-all,” Kelley says. “The level of discourse has become so inane and nasty. And it’s not just at the Times, it’s ESPN, everywhere—people, anonymous people, take shots at the story, writers, each other. Whatever you’ve achieved in that story gets drowned out by this chorus of idiots.”

True enough, Kelley’s last column that said nothing about his departure and drew 111 comments, including the comment from Xman91: “KELLEY ANNOUNCED HIS “RETIREMENT” FROM THE SEATTLE TIMES. V Day!!!”

He’s not the first journalist to make such a public stink about online comments. Leonard Pitts Jr., a Miami Herald Pulitzer Prize winning columnist, wrote in 2010 that anonymity has made comment streams “havens for a level of crudity, bigotry, meanness and plain nastiness that shocks the tattered remnants of our propriety.”

Kelley and Pitts seem to mirror many views of clients profiled in the news and then blasted by anonymous commenters who relish in making personal, non-fact based attacks.

We counsel our clients to ignore the comments after critical stories since they’re usually ill conceived and do nothing to further the debate.

But we know they read them and are inclined to respond to the wild accusations. It’s human nature, and a bad idea. It also adds fuel to the already burning fire. People who anonymously comment online are good at quick attacks, and really know how to pile on.

Newspapers, over the past two years, have been trying to require commenters to offer personal information. Progress has been slow, and it’s still easy to log on with an alternative email and begin to comment. Rarely does a newspaper proactively or quickly pull down offensive comments.

Yet headway is still being made. This week, the small Yamhill Valley News Register in Oregon reported that since it began a few weeks ago restricting online comments to paid subscribers only, comments have fallen off, but the ones that are being posted are more reasonable.

In a note to readers, publisher Jeb Bladine said: “Over time, reader comments will add more community perspective on the news and commentary articles—perhaps providing opinions that find their way onto the pages of the newspaper.” We can only hope so.

Gil Rudawsky heads up the crisis communication and issues management practice at GroundFloor Media in Denver. He is a former reporter and editor. Read his blog or contact him at grudawsky@groundfloormedia.com.

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