Cleaning up comments

Any news organization that really believes in serving the public has to listen to its audience. In the old days, that meant taking phone calls and letters. More recently, it has meant providing email addresses and actually reading the stuff people send in. Now, it means allowing for comments online. But the process of doing that can be messy.

Late last year, the Web site of the Philadelphia Inquirer and Daily News, Philly.com turned off comments because “our comments system sucked,” according to acting VP Mark Potts.

Anytime a newspaper has problems with comments, it doesn’t take long to figure out why: It happens because the site managers allowed anonymity, or they didn’t think to employ a profanity filter, or they didn’t put “report abuse” buttons on the comments to let readers self-police the feature. Fail to do any one of these and you get chaos. Online community managers have known this for years. Newspapers are still learning.

The Philly site now employs a number of best practices for dealing with comments that Potts spells out in detail on his blog.

Among them:

  • Required registration, with a confirmable e-mail address.
  • Unique usernames.
  • Profanity filter.
  • “Report abuse” buttons.
  • Clear, upbeat language about behavior.

One thing the site doesn’t do: moderate or require editorial approval before posting comments. In Potts’ view, “That’s just nuts—it’s an enormous resource hog and a horrible reader experience (because comments aren’t posted in real time, stifling the conversation).”

Some news organizations decided not to moderate comments because they feared it could make them liable for defamatory postings. The theory was that if you so much as touched the comments you could be held accountable for the content. But according to MediaShift‘s Mark Glaser, that’s not true.

The Communications Decency Act of 1996 was largely struck down by the courts, but one important part that remained, Section 230, protects online services from liability for people’s comments even if they are edited prior to publication.

You could still be sued for comments people make in forums but, according to the Citizen Media Law Project, sites that pre-screen comments have won every lawsuit so far.  That might not be a good enough reason not to screen, but it’s something to consider.

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  1. Update: The Miami Herald has taken similar steps this week to get a handle on comments. In a letter to readers, Editor Anders Gyllenhaal says that “on too many stories, the comments swerve across the clear lines of common decency. Whenever the news brushes up against the cultural fault lines of our times — from race relations to illegal immigration — the postings can turn vicious, personal and outright racist.”

    The paper already tried have editors approve comments, and created filters to block profanity (a list that now stretches to 150 words in three languages). So now, readers have to register before commenting. http://www.miamiherald.com/540/story/448207.html

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