Reporter's Notebook

The art and science of the interview

Joining the Conversation

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bait and switch

Public radio stations have adopted online message and comment boards as forums. They use them strategically, 1) To mine them for particularly relevant comments related to whatever story they want to highlight, 2) To find people who might be good candidates for future stories, and 3) To let people feel like they are being heard by the station. But conversation isn’t always the intention or the outcome and it is questionable as to whether this medium hurts or helps journalism and public engagement.

Often, general interest programs take callers. But callers can be volatile in different ways. They can of course, be abrasive. That’s why almost all stations have kill switches that let hosts or engineers cut off rude callers. They are able to do this because the program you are hearing is being delivered to you anywhere between 7 and 20 seconds behind the actual program at the station. When a caller becomes inappropriate, they are cut off in some cases before you ever hear them.

Another way callers can be volatile is by forcefully continuing to talk as the host is running out of time. Radio programs run on tight schedules, especially if they are part of a network that must let affiliates down the line jump in and out of network programming to meet their own local needs. Missing times can upset affiliates and consequently, their advertisers. So hitting time cues is critical. A caller that won’t stop talking can cause big problems for stations because hosts don’t want to seem rude but sometimes must be abrupt to keep to the clock.

For these and other reasons, many general interest programs have stopped taking as many callers and have moved to comments posted on social networks. This way, they can get the same public engagement by cherry picking the best comments without the fear of being surprised by rudeness or droning. But these programs often receive so many commenters that they don’t even have time to include most of the condensed responses they get on social networks. And since many of them rebroadcast their daytime programs in the evening, those programs have been encouraging people to “join the conversation.”

But this can sometimes sound like “pass the buck” on the obligation to actually give people an opportunity and a voice to engage the subject of the story about a particular issue. What people want is to ask the expert, which is why the program invited them on it in the first place. Instead, what these programs are doing is giving participants who use comment boards the less than ideal substitute of engaging each other. This can have benefits in terms of allowing people to see that listeners of the same program can differ widely about its message. But sometimes, relying on comment boards leads to disastrous results for the commenters and the entity.

Online comments aren’t free from volatility. Some publications with similar online comment boards like the Huffington Post, have ended anonymous comments and now force users to use their real names. They and others make this choice to insure people who post vicious comments are out in the open with the thinking apparently being that sunlight kills germs. Mainstays like Wired Magaazine and Popular Science have ended comment boards altogether. The latter choosing so because research has shown that even a small number of people who post wrong information can skew the perception of the entire group. As a publication dedicated to science and research, suffering the ignorant minority at the expense of the innocent majority was something PS could not stomach.

Some see the solution to better comment boards as being heavier moderation while others are pinning their hopes on software that looks for offensive keywords or polices syntax to remove phrases that have antisocial intentions. But some reporters and journalists say comment boards are true forums for public discussion and the poisons injected by trolls and flamers is the price we pay for free speech in a free country.

Still, when a station or a program invites me to “join the conversation”, it feels cheap. They are trying to convince me that they are listening and that I matter and I’ll be part of a vibrant, thoughtful and intelligent community discussion on the issue of the day. I suspect that what is actually happening, as it has happened all too often, is that I am joining nothing and conversing with no one.

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