Why does the Star Tribune block comments on select issues?

Everyone’s a pundit in the digital age, thanks to the interactive comment sections that have become a standard online feature at the end of reporter pieces on most news websites. There’s a comment box waiting just for you at the end of this column.

So why does the Star Tribune exclude its online audience—one of the largest in the country for a newspaper—from weighing in on the hottest issues of the day?

To be fair, the Strib values readers’ opinions, as long as they pontificate on the right topic. The comment section is wide open on a wide variety of softball subjects like the weather, Pokemon hunters, a serious lime juice shortage for margaritas, northern Minnesota alligators and so on.

But anyone who tries to remark on the hot-button issues of the day knows Minnesota’s largest newspaper wants your eyeballs, but usually not your opinion.  The paper routinely shuts down the comments section for stories on the latest developments many people are talking about—immigration, crime and race.View Comments gfx

It’s not clear whether the Star Tribune has a written policy prohibiting comments on taboo subjects or if editors make the call on a case-by-case basis. American Experiment has asked the paper to clarify its policy.

A random check of coverage in the last week found no online comments were allowed by the Star Tribune on 15 pressing news stories of the day. The paper closed down comments on local, national and even international stories that were apparently deemed too volatile for public input.

Local stories precluded from comments included Philando Castile’s funeral, Black Lives Matter’s planned Rosedale protest, police removing protesters outside the Governor’s Mansion and a controversial police training program.

The ban extends to some of the most widely read local articles on the website. A story on Minneapolis off-duty cops walking out of a Lynx game drew more than 34,000 Facebook shares but no comments.

Reader opinions are also regularly blocked for national and international stories, such as the murder of three police officers in Baton Rouge, the Nice terrorist attack and terrorist ax assault on a German train.

In contrast, the St. Paul Pioneer Press allowed comments on each of those stories which generated dozens of responses in several cases. Sometimes the level of discourse also leads to complaints. The paper monitors comments for language and violence, but generally allows the free exchange of opinion.Linked-In

“We’ve held on to the idea that better that this stuff is in the air. Just because we cut it off doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist,” said Mike Burbach, Pioneer Press editor. “Better that the world knows about it, whatever it is, and has a chance to consider it.”

It’s not necessarily controversy the Strib appears to be trying to avoid.  The paper has allowed comments on student sexual misconduct complaints at St. Olaf, the $15 minimum wage petition in Minneapolis and Donald Trump’s political rhetoric.

The consistent pattern seems to be shutting down comments on issues where the paper institutionally has a strong opinion and knows that opinion is not necessarily shared by a significant number of readers. The result is that on some of the most sensitive issues of the day, the Star Tribune effectively makes its paper a one-way echo chamber.

Readers can get the information Strib editors deem appropriate but without any countervailing facts or arguments that might be offered in comments which some readers may find persuasive.