Whenever I read a carefully crafted breaking news piece or an artfully arranged feature story online, I try to stop my eyes from drifting downward into the depths of the plebeian commentators. Practically anything can be written underneath an article to which a reporter has spent hours dedicating time and effort. Most comments attack rather than discuss an issue in a poignant or intelligent way. Debates ensue that detract attention and depreciate the value from the article overall.
Imagine a glorious, sunny summer afternoon. A picnic is spread on a blanket in the grass, skillfully created courses adorn the surface, and each dish enhances the next. It is the perfect setting for a culinary masterpiece — a setting for contemplation and enjoyment. An ant appears on the picnic blanket. It forages for the perfect crumb upon which it can steal and gorge itself. Soon, more ants reach the picnic. The bounty of food creates a frenzy, and a battle emerges amongst the food. The meal is no longer enjoyable or discernible, covered in a black, crawling mass. All that is left are the ants, struggling amongst themselves to escape with the best crumb.
Public commentary affects great journalism in this way. People grab onto convenient bits information to fit the argument they wish to present. As more people join the debate, the beauty of the well-written word becomes muddled.
Newspapers and magazines have considered whether or not to allow public comments on websites. Allowing readers to leave their opinions occasionally increases interest in the story, and sometimes a comment gives a new perspective or reveals new information the reporter may not have known. In order to weed out inappropriate or offensive material, however, web editors have come up with a compromise: assign one or more of the staff to filter all submissions. The result still does not seem much better than not having a filter at all.
When Chardon High School suffered a vicious school shooting a month ago, newspapers all over the country covered the developing horrors. The Denver Post posted a piece on the shooting and student deaths, under which 127 comments were attached. Starting with the second comment, a battle over gun rights ensued. The debate draws the reader away from the important issue, the only topic worth caring about in regards to that particular article — three students died in a brutal slaying at the hands of another student. Ignoring the deaths of three children to debate political topics lacks propriety and any shred of humanity.
Writers earn their livelihood by creating powerful pieces of prose, and public commentary mars their work. More than that, people seem to lose the ability to intelligently present an argument and often lose their manners and sensitivity. If the urge to smear your opinions over the Internet is too strong, start a blog instead.