Popular Science says “no” to commenting. What does that say about journalism?

Dissent

I had a whole different plan for this blog post today, but I’m diverting. I can’t help but address something really interesting that happened yesterday in the media world.

By now, you have probably read or heard reports about Popular Science’s decision to shut down its online comments section.

In an article announcing this decision, the publication’s online content director cites studies that show that negative comments affect even the most seemingly unbiased reader. The piece goes on to explain:

“A politically motivated, decades-long war on expertise has eroded the popular consensus on a wide variety of scientifically validated topics. Everything, from evolution to the origins of climate change, is mistakenly up for grabs again. Scientific certainty is just another thing for two people to “debate” on television. And because comments sections tend to be a grotesque reflection of the media culture surrounding them, the cynical work of undermining bedrock scientific doctrine is now being done beneath our own stories, within a website devoted to championing science.”

The news got me thinking, not so much about how this decision relates to politics, science or punditry, but what it implies about how we understand and define journalistic practice and content.

Here’s what I mean:

I’m fascinated by the idea that publications are just now coming to terms with the fact that they have to engage in direct conversation with so many naysayers. I think that’s due to the changing way we receive and give content.

Journalism used to be more of a one-way endeavor. Reporters would report, the public would read it and then discuss it amongst themselves, in public places, in groups, on stages … wherever, but without such unfettered access to the journalists. In the pre-Internet world, someone wishing publish a dissenting opinion in reaction to a article in the journalist’s arena would have to write an old fashioned letter, seal it in an envelope, stamp it and pop it in the mail box, with the hope that whoever fielded letters to the editor at the chosen magazine or newspaper would pick theirs for publication.

But now, the Internet makes it that much easier for anyone to self-publish whatever reaction they choose, instantly. That turns journalists into referees who must field hard and fast criticism at every turn, and on their online turf. Whereas journalists used to be able to step away and let the public do the talking, the nature of online discussion makes that almost impossible. Talk surrounding journalistic content has gotten freer, easier, more visceral and closer to home. And, as Popular Science now argues, the availability and frequency of that conversation now prevents Journalists from fulfilling their missions.

I’m also interested in this portion of the announcement:

“If you carry out those results to their logical end–commenters shape public opinion; public opinion shapes public policy; public policy shapes how and whether and what research gets funded–you start to see why we feel compelled to hit the “off” switch.”

What interests me here is what this statement says about the modern definition, even nature, of journalism. In light of this, how do we define Popular Science? Does it exist to inform? Spark discourse? Promote further scientific research? Obtain funding for an industry? This quote might suggest that the publication has wider interests that just journalistic ones. A journalistic purist might say this falls outside of what a journalistic entity is supposed to do.

When I was in J school, one of the first pieces I ever wrote garnered one of the most scathing responses I’ve ever received. My professor applauded me for sparking dialogue, maintaining that one of the jobs of journalism is to get people talking, even the caustic, myopic (and maybe even uninformed) ones.

So what does this say about Popular Science’s role as a modern journalistic entity? And in an age where anyone can self-publish as many times as he / she wants, is it time to rethink the value of discourse at all costs? Furthermore, is it time to rethink the responsibility of Journalism in sparking that discourse?

I’m certainly fascinated by this debate. And I hope that J schools all over the country are tackling questions like these this morning.

One final thought: This decision seems to turn the traditional narrative of dissent on its head. Typically, we hear stories about how leakers, radicals and other dissenters are being quashed by governments, big business or political rivals. Here, a set of journalists, presumably members of a group that champions public discourse at all costs, one that protects whistleblowers, sensitive sources and leakers when possible, is shutting out the dissenters. What are we to make of that?

5 thoughts on “Popular Science says “no” to commenting. What does that say about journalism?

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