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Popular Science’s Unpopular Journalism Move: No Reader Comments

Popular Science's Unpopular Journalism Move: No Reader Comments

Popular Science is not generally regarded as usually being on the cutting edge of the media ecosystem. It strikes a lot of people as inhabiting a niche position in the world of journalism, written by wonks to be read by even bigger wonks though it is respected in its corner of the industry.

But Popular Science is changing its image by taking a bold stand. It will stop publishing readers comments on its stories. It explains that the process is actually bad for science.

“A politically motivated, decades-long war on expertise has eroded the popular consensus on a wide variety of scientifically validated topics,” writes Suzanne LaBarre, its online content director. “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.”

She adds: “Simply including an ad hominem attack in a reader comment was enough to make study participants think the downside of the reported technology was greater than they’d previously thought,” LaBarre writes. Feel free to read more:–says-practice-is-bad-for-…

I think it’s worth a try and I applaud Popular Science for moving in this direction. It’s a gutsy decision because it goes so much against the grain of what’s happening today in online journalism. The reader is sacred and if we have to put up with the odd yahoo, now and then, so be it. All we care about is getting those blessed eyeballs.

The only party it is potentially hurting is itself because readers often like to weigh in on subjects by offering their comments online. Making a site more interactive is generally good for business because, by being inclusive, you give the readers an added incentive to staying on the website.

Of course, inclusion can come at a stiff price — to one’s ego, in particular. In my previous job, I solicited reader comments. I didn’t quite pander for them, mind you, but I did love it when a piece I wrote on, say, Sarah Palin’s media strategy drew about 1,000 comments. 

It was fun at the time, I admit, to write something that got people so excited and aroused. It meant that they cared. Occasionally, however, they cared too much and took it out on the hapless writer (me).

Once, a woman from somewhere out west had clearly had enough of my pieces and decided to let me have it, with both barrels. She told me, in so many words: I’ve been reading your column for many years. It stinks — and you are ugly.

I was impressed by her chutzpah and brazen disregard for my feelings. I pulled it together and shot her back a reply that was as honest and direct as I could make it. I told her:

The columns DO NOT stink!

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