A similar “assimilation bias” was uncovered in a pivotal 2008 study led by Joseph Walther, a professor at Michigan State who has written prolifically on cyber psychology. The findings showed that whether Facebook users were voted “hot or not” depended, in part, on their friends—how attractive they were and even what they posted. How participants judged the primary content (a Facebook user) was shaped by the context (Facebook friends and their posts).

“As Web sites become more interactive and participatory,” Walther and his co-authors concluded, “the question of textual authority becomes less clear.”

And some news sites are even going beyond integrating the prose of readers and writers.

At The Atlantic, Ta-Nehisi Coates’s blog will experiment by awarding some commenters moderator privileges. The Huffington Post is launching a new commenting platform that, I’m told by Community Editor Annemarie Dooling, will “put the power in users’ hands.” And while The Times was slow to tweak its meticulous system—which involved reviewing every comment before posting—last year articles and blogs began sharing their pages with comments, and select commenters received a status upgrade that spared them moderation.

“It was about ease of use,” Sasha Koren, deputy editor of interactive news at The Times, told me. “It was more about the experience of commenting than a sort of philosophical shift.”

The delicate balance between exacting stringent editorial standards, even empowering commenters to execute them, and keeping readers from encroaching upon the newsroom is familiar to Yoni Appelbaum, a correspondent for The Atlantic. A few years ago, his commentary impressed Cohn enough to secure a job offer.

“[If] writers and editors are willing to engage with and police the comments,” Appelbaum said, “I think it can yield tremendous dividends.” But only “to the extent that it is treated as something external to the site, as a space the readers own, as opposed to as a forum of the publication,” he added.

In a recent Q&A at the Times, Koren explained that much moderation is done by hand because “[w]e see these comments as an extension of our journalism.” Speaking with me, she clarified that “We’re not considering [readers] as akin to reporters. I think readers get that distinction, that what readers are sharing is by nature subjective.”

If so, subjectivity is still compelling. Part of the reason seems psychological: Conflating specific content (news) with the wider context (comments) and defending against perceived media control are two mental quirks that can incite distrust of the coverage. But outlets’ push to cure online incivility—to ratchet up screening and reward good behavior—may put users at greater risk of warped reading. Quality control, as Lee suggests, must also account for “the possibility that the comments can change the very perception of the article itself.”

 

Dorian Rolston is a freelance journalist in Princeton, NJ. His writing on scholars and scholarship has appeared online at The Atlantic, The Paris Review, and other publications