Monday, October 18, 2010

So long to stupid comments

The big day is here: it's Double Down launch day at Canadian KFCs! I've heard that a few restaurants actually started serving the sandwich over the weekend - I may have driven by one, in fact - but today it's official. I'll be trying one for lunch, assuming they're not sold out across the land, and will have a full report back here tomorrow.

On a related note, this past Saturday was actually World Food Day, the United Nations' annual effort at raising awareness of global hunger issues. Well KFC may not exactly figure into that too much, one significant issue that does is the idea of genetically modified organisms.

There's a whole chapter on GMOs in Sex, Bombs and Burgers and if you've read it, you know it's one technology I'm very supportive of. In researching the book, I spoke to a number of food scientists and humanitarians and all of them expressed dismay over the controversy that has surrounded GMOs for the better part of the past decade. From concerns over their environmental and health impacts to worries about companies patenting life forms or polluting plant and human genomes, critics have succeeded in putting up just about every roadblock conceivable. In the meantime, millions of people in developing nations have continued to go hungry and, in the worst cases, they've died because of it.

One of the biggest scientific breakthroughs of this young millennium is a case in point. Golden Rice, which I write about in the book, has been genetically enhanced to contain more beta-carotene, which the human body converts into Vitamin A. Deficiency of that particular vitamin is a major, major problem, causing blindness and killing an estimated one to two million people a year. The rice has, unfortunately, suffered from the "Frankenfood" hysteria surrounding GMOs and has not yet been approved for human consumption, despite making its debut a decade ago.

On Friday, I spoke with Dr. Adrian Dubock, a British food scientist who now lives in Switzerland and works on the Golden Rice Project, a group overseeing the technology's development. He shared some good news, which you can read in the interview I posted over on CBC, that the rice may finally be getting its stamp of approval in the next two years. Similar to the AquaBounty Salmon, which has been genetically engineered to grow faster, Golden Rice is coming close to delivering on the early promise of GMOs - that proper use of the technology can help solve one of the most serious problems in the world. As Dubock puts it:

If Golden Rice is successful, it will help the appreciation of the utility of the technology for wider society. That's the big sin of this controversy against GMOs — that this technology is extremely scaleable and it can help poor people in developing countries much more than a lot of other technologies in agriculture because, basically, it doesn't cost anything. It doesn't require rocket-science skills to do it either. It is very, very pertinent to developing countries.

That brings me to what I really wanted to discuss in today's post: reader comments. If there's one thing I won't miss about working at the CBC once I'm done at the end of the month, it's the largely inane and often idiotic comments that show up at the bottom of stories. They are truly one of the worst parts of the job. Here's a couple of choice ones from the Golden Rice story:

There is no need for golden rice! Carrots produce beta-carotene. So do apricots, sweet potatoes, squash, spinach, broccoli, romaine lettuce, apricots, and green pepper, kale, turnip greens, collard greens and a variety of other foods. These foods all grow well in many parts of Africa! Why not encourage people in Africa in eat a variety of foods?

Whoopee! I can hear it now. A new rice that we can charge more for because the smelly masses think its better for them. Low fat diets? More expensive! Reliance on fresh rather than processed foods? More expensive! Need I say more? All we need is Soylent Green.

Those are just the tip of the iceberg. A few weeks ago, I wrote a story about the upcoming Tron: Evolution video game (developed in Canada), and before you knew it, the comments degenerated into a debate over God and creationism. It got so bad we had to remove a bunch of them and institute special moderation. And this was for a story about a video game where players race futuristic motorcycles. Actual stories about God and creationism often get their comments section turned off altogether.

Now, I know it's foolish to take the comments too seriously as they do represent only a very small percentage of actual readers - I've heard estimates of perhaps 10%. Moreover, while the majority of comments are useless, stupid or even offensive, there are some that are intelligent, well thought out or useful. There have been many times when readers have pointed out other useful facts that added to my stories and, not to mention the occasional error. Those are great comments to get, but they constitute a massive minority.

Some people say the best thing to do is ignore the stupid comments, but I don't think you can do that because in a sense, they are part of the story - and they do have an effect. I've had sources refuse to talk to me on the grounds that they don't want to (inevitably) get crucified in the comments section. And it's not just me - a spokesman for CBC said last month that the corporation is considering doing away with comments anonymity because of these sorts of issues. Dave Cormier, a father in Halifax who lost his child a few years ago, was attacked anonymously in the comments section of a story that ran at the time. As last month's report said, "Cormier says he and his partner probably won't be doing any more media interviews. He says they've had enough of being attacked by people hiding behind screen names."

Exactly. Anonymous comments are hindering journalists' efforts at getting information, and they're scaring people from putting their names into those stories because they'd rather not get anonymously attacked.

There are some defenders of anonymity out there, like former Washington Post editor Doug Feaver, who last year argued that such comments are good because "it is useful to be reminded bluntly that the dark forces are out there and that it is too easy to forget that truth by imposing rules that obscure it."

That may be the case, but I think Feaver forgot one of the fundamental rules of a democracy (and Spider-Man comics): with great power comes great responsibility. When someone is granted a right or a privilege, the ability to go out and abuse it does not automatically follow. In that vein, if someone wants to post a provocative comment, they should be willing to back it up and not hide behind a fake name, the same way they would do in the real world. Or at least, that's my opinion.

It's an issue that virtually every media organization is dealing with. Some are opting for innovative approaches, like Reuters, which recently instituted a sort of VIP system that lets readers earn points and credibility by submitting good comments. Others, such as Activision/Blizzard - makers of the World of Warcraft video game - tried to get rid of anonymous comments and faced the wrath of gamers.

I'm not sure what the answer is and I'll definitely have more thoughts to add on the subject in the future, but like I said, I'm glad it's not something I'm going to have to deal with on a daily basis anymore. (So far it hasn't proven to be a problem here, and I hope it never does.)


Post a Comment