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Online reader comments: vandalism v. value

Online reader comments: vandalism v. value

Online reader comments: vandalism v. value

Instead of ringing in the new year in the typical optimistic fashion, a daily paper in Bloomington, Ill., said goodbye to 2009 by temporarily silencing its readers. After a rash of personal attacks and off-topic reader comments, editor Mark Pickering announced that the Pantagraph would ban all comments on local news stories through the holiday weekend. The paper’s announcement warned, “This ‘cooling off’ period is meant as a strong reminder to our online readers,” citing that comments should drive a “spirit of community involvement and conversation.” More than 100 comments accumulated before commenting was shut off on New Year’s Eve. On Jan. 4, readers finally got their voices back.

Many of the readers who commented on the decision to suspend comments suggested that banning anonymous comments might foster accountability. New Times Broward-Palm Beach columnist and blogger Bob Norman, who has assisted in exposing much of the corruption in that area of Florida, is appalled by those types of suggestions. “Anonymous commenters have been crucial in finding the truth,” he said. “You need confidential sources to get to what’s going on in the guts of the community.”

Whether they choose to be anonymous or not, Norman said that the level of discourse can be very high for a news blog that attracts readers who have a stake in the community. “It’s a true community effort, and on the best days it’s a beautiful, beautiful thing,” he said. Norman often lacks the time to read every comment, but said he gets “as much out of the comments as readers do.” But what about the racist, political, or off-topic rants that appear on news stories of almost every type? “It’s like vandalism,” Norman said. “It reflects on those who decide to vandalize the site.” Mark Fitzgerald, editor in chief of Editor & Publisher magazine, agreed. “A lot of the time, those people aren’t even subscribers.”

Moderating reader comments has been an issue at many other newspapers around the nation, including the South Florida Sun-Sentinel. Hateful comments got so out of hand last year that the paper implemented a registration process for interested commenters. In general, moderation techniques range from free and unfiltered anonymous posting, to filters that block offensive language, to full disclosure of a commenter’s true identity. While opinions on the best method vary as much as the methods themselves, there is a general sense that newspapers and their accompanying Web sites should be a place for civil discourse and a generally polite exchange of information and ideas. There is little room for hate and personal attacks.

In true journalistic spirit, the desire to preserve free speech seems to be on the minds of most staffers. “We get it, we have thick skin,” said an online content editor who prefers, like so many readers, to remain anonymous. “We aren’t the moral police. You allow all [comments] or none, you can’t pick and choose.” The editor indicated that internal battles over comments may be more heated at publications that retain separate staffs for print and online operations. In addition, quieting readers could hurt business for a paper. “Don’t turn off the chance for people to speak their mind. They will go to another Web site to do so.”

Despite the problems that arise, allowing readers to comment instantly seem to benefit those papers and news sites. “There’s much more reader involvement,” Fitzgerald said, as the community assembles in an electronic format. “Smart newspaper editors read those comments and check them out.”

The gradual switch to online news and reader interaction has “changed every aspect of my job,” Norman said. “I’m a 24/7 instant journalist.”

Reader interaction online can help develop new ideas or stories, and can help draw in advertisers as well. “Web pages become stickier,” Fitzgerald explained. “People hang on them more and that makes them more attractive to advertisers.”

In Illinois, comments have returned, but not without some scolding from local readers who felt stifled by the move. But in an instant news cycle, quick, sweeping decisions are sometimes necessary. “The other choice is just to be a continual forum for hate speech, and that’s not the function of newspapers,” Fitzgerald said of the decision to suspend comments.

But how far is too far in the encouragement of civil discourse? “Turning off comments to me is almost like a slap in the face to the readers, and totally backwards in terms of where we’re headed in the journalism industry,” Norman said.

— Lisa Rowan

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