Comments lack balanced voice online

Published 12:00 am Friday, April 30, 2010

If there is one frustration area elected leaders routinely express about The Natchez Democrat’s Web site, it is their aggravation with the site’s online comments.

Since June 2008 when the current version of natchezdemocrat.com debuted, leaders from practically every corner of the Miss-Lou have complained both publicly and privately about this added feature.

A year and a half later, they still do. In fact, in recent community meetings to discuss the benefits of regionalism in the Miss-Lou, the online comments were identified as a place where the people who want to gripe about the community and spread negativity lurk.

The community is being torn apart by the divisiveness and hatred that fills the comments, others have said.

Others question whether the newspaper is concerned about the impression the comments leave on those who log in from outside the Miss-Lou.

It is true that many of our registered users leave comments that can be classified as negativity and griping. That is to be expected when many readers express their own frustrations with many aspects of their community, including what our leaders do and do not do.

Occasionally users let their frustrations get out of hand and attack one another or make comments that break our Web site’s policies. When our readers notify us of out-of-line comments via the “suggest removal” links, we respond to make sure our policies are enforced.

Still, local leaders lament.

Yet, when asked if they have ever posted comments in rebuttal, community leaders respond with blank stares.

Maybe it is because they fear being attacked or being labeled as defensive. Whatever the reason, few leaders have logged into the Web site either to refute misinformation or to offer clarification to stories.

The Web site regularly receives positive comments from readers, especially on obituaries and human-interest stories. But most news stories are left with only one voice — a decidedly negative one.

That’s a shame, because the newspaper’s Web site needs more than one voice. It needs a balance of voices.

Most important, it needs a well-informed voice, like the voice Natchez Alderman Ernest “Tony” Fields added to the Web site Wednesday afternoon. Instead of allowing a commenter to imply that Fields routinely shirks his civic duty by abstaining from voting, the Ward 4 alderman logged in to correct the record.

“Thank you for your comment but it’s very misleading. I have to defend myself on your statement, ‘This Alderman frequently abstains, citing conflict of interests.’ I have only abstained from voting twice and both were on school board appointments,” Fields, a Natchez-Adams School District employee, wrote.

That comment not only helped to the correct the record but also helped create a more informative and useful conversation.

Such a conversation is not limited to elected leaders.

Thursday morning cardiologist Dr. Brad LeMay responded to conflict of interest concerns about his position at Natchez Regional Medical Center. Instead of letting the question linger, LeMay responded quickly. His response assured readers and helped diffuse a comment that had the potential to turn negative.

I believe that the comments left by Dr. LeMay and Alderman Fields are what most readers of the newspaper’s Web site want to read. If more leaders contribute to the comments rather than lament about them, we might end up with a more balanced conversation on the Web.

I am convinced that is the conversation readers want. The question is do our leaders want that conversation with their constituents?

Ben Hillyer is the Web editor of The Natchez Democrat. He can be reached at 601-445-3540 or by e-mail at ben.hillyer@natchezdemocrat.com.