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Putting a stop to abusive reader comments

July 8: Over the last six months, editorial staff at the Illinois-based Pantagraph has been on a mission of “civility,” a campaign to combat abuse of the comment system most newspapers have integrated into their websites to encourage reader participation.

But reader comments have increasingly come in the form of using profanity, vulgar language and mockery, which the Pantagraph realized was starting to become the norm last December. That’s when they announced to readers they would be shutting comments down for a “cooling off” period. “We put a two week moratorium on comments, we didn’t allow comments on any local stories,” said editor Mark Pickering, noting that most of their problems were coming from local news.

The abuse of the reader comment system has been a rampant problem that news sites everywhere have been battling. Although comments are a significant arena for publications to get feedback from readers, Peter Scheer, a lawyer, journalist and executive director of the First Amendment Coalition, believes that news organizations should not encourage anonymous posting, which is where much of the problem lies. “Comments at their worst are just virtual graffiti, so all online media need to do what they can to filter,” he said. This can include requiring readers to register with the publication, identifying themselves with their name, e-mail address and location so they are not completely anonymous, he noted.

The Buffalo News is one paper that has taken a stand against anonymity. In a recent editorial, editor Margaret Sullivan announced that readers will be required to give their real names, e-mail and town of residence, which will appear with their comments starting Aug. 1. “…Reader comments can be racist and ugly,” she wrote. “In fact, we’ve been shocked at how seemingly routine stories can elicit comments that veer off into offensive territory.”

The editorial came out on June 20. As of June 29, 641 reader comments were attached to the story. That’s a lot of comments, many of which have expressed anger at having their anonymity taken away. “Sorry you are choosing to take away the reader’s First Amendment Right to free speech. Talk about rights and civil rights!” one reader wrote.

But according to Scheer, this is not a freedom of speech issue and readers have no specific right to vandalize a publication’s website with their language. In addition, he said that it is an editor’s duty to edit news that appears on the website, so why not comments as well?

Many editors fear that if they screen or edit comments and then accidentally let something through that could be considered defamation, they think they’ll get “sued on the theory they should have stopped it,” he said. But this isn’t the case. “The law is very clear that the owner of the website has no liability for what commenters post except in the very limited case in which the owner takes an unobjectionable posting and changes it so the meaning is completely opposite to what the poster says. But that’s not something responsible editors do,” Scheer said. “That’s not just my legal opinion or a wish, that’s the law,” he added.

Everyone has the write to post anonymously somewhere on the Internet, “but it doesn’t mean you have the right to be anonymous on my magazine, or my website or my blog … you can have your own blog,” Scheer said. “Sometimes there’s a need for anonymity, certainly dissidents in Iran and China need to be able to publish their views anonymously because if they don’t they’ll end up in jail. But in America and most of the West, that is not a plausible or likely outcome.”

Back at the Pantagraph, Pickering said he thinks they have their comment offenders under control. “I think we’ve done a good job staying on top of that and fostering constructive posting,” he said. Nowadays, they have no problem just flat out deleting comments they find offensive. Throughout the day, the paper’s team of editors diligently moderate comments, giving warnings when needed and eliminating comments when they have crossed a line. Certain types of stories known to incite the anonymous masses don’t allow for commenting. Meanwhile, if a story brings in a rare slew of comments throughout the day, Pickering noted that sometimes they just shut it down so it doesn’t go unmoderated overnight. Ultimately, if people continually abuse the system, they get banned.

“We want healthy debate, we want people to voice their views but we want it done in a civil way, a constructive way so the thread is something people can respond to instead of constant negativity, instead of things that will turn them off,” he said.

— Katrina M. Mendolera

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