Don't be afraid to let your staff leave comments

There was a time when I’d get upset at reporters and columnists who responded to comments on our news site. My rationale: It was unprofessional and nonobjective. But that was before I understood that the Web is a two-way conversation.

If done appropriately, reporters and columnists can use comments as a means of building credibility instead of diminishing it.

In 2007 I wrote to Poynter’s ethics guru Bob Steele to get advice about this very topic and he said via e-mail:

Most news organizations would not publish letters or online comments written by staff. An alternative is for a staffer to write a guest column but the editor has final judgment on whether it gets published. Your staff member has Freedom of Speech rights but that does NOT guarantee him access to your paper nor your website.

But even in two short years, those rules have changed substantially.

The dynamic of the Web (which has been emphasized in journalism through blogs and Twitter) allows readers to communicate directly with writers.

The discussion that can unfold between readers and reporters adds value to your articles, whether it results in fact-checking (commenters as “watchdogs”), a new angle, or the building of community. And really, why shouldn’t your reporters be able to respond?

Here are a few general guidelines about letting news staff comment on articles:

  • If a commenter presents a question about a fact or issue within the article, the reporter should clarify or answer the question when possible, even if it requires additional reporting
  • Reporters should not argue personal opinions in comments of a news article they wrote
  • Columnists or op/ed writers should, however, have the freedom to editorialize in comments and respond to counterarguments, as long as it doesn’t turn into personal attacks
  • For full disclosure, all members of your staff who respond in comments should clearly identify themselves as members of your news organization
  • All comments from your news staff should be professional and accurate; it’s not a medium for reporters to interject with speculation or rumor
  • Don’t let “professional” throw you off though– comments can  still be personal and casual. Let your reporters be the real people  that they are. Your readers will trust them more