Monday, July 19, 2010

The tangled web of online comments

Today I am being taken to task by anonymous bloggers at Save Pottstown for comments made on The Mercury website.
The blog draws a line from a comment made on a Pottstown Borough Council story at to reports of vandalism at the home of a local citizen and community activist and somehow ends up with a conclusion that "The Mercury promotes hate and violence" under my direction.
About the only thing known to be factual in that rant is that as editor, I have the responsibility for what we print online and in the paper -- a responsibility that those who know me understand I consider sacred.
This insinuation is just the latest in our continuing struggle with web commenting. About a year ago, we were among the first websites in our company to change to pre-approval of comments. At the time, online editor Eileen Faust wrote a front-page story about the decision, posted rules, and began vigorously enforcing them.
Other media websites have been reluctant to get into approving comments because it goes against the spontaneous, free and open environment of the web. But we believe that there is no justification for allowing hate and threats to poison the dialogue that we are trying to promote.
Last year's commenting on the Myra Forrest firing and Owen J. Roberts School Board attracted a lot of "trolls" from outside the area and inspired a volume of commenting on our website that went off in areas completely irrelevant to the local topic being discussed.
We know that some people comment on every story posted on a given day, whether they have any interest or relevant observation to make. It's just an opportunity to espouse opinions, some of which serve no purpose other than inciting anger or hate. The volume of troll postings and the obvious intention of inciting reaction with nastiness caused us to go to pre-approval.
But that creates its own set of problems. Comments are approved by a number of people here because it's a 24/7 chore -- we get complaints on comments not approved, complaints on comments that are approved, complaints that we're not fast enough in getting them approved, and complaints that we're too slow or too fast in taking down comments after someone reports abuse.
Some stories we don't even allow comments because they have the potential for so much nastiness, we can't keep up with it. When someone reports abuse of a comment that is already posted, we usually take it down (unless their reason is something silly) because if even one person is offended and expresses that to us, we believe we should take it down.
We are also receiving complaints about how we handle complaints about the approval process. We're working on more specific guidelines and creating a method for objecting when we take down or don't approve a comment.
We are not the only media company struggling with the work of engaging people without crossing the lines of libel and without promoting attitudes that we believe are detrimental to our readers.
Harry Dietz, the editor of The Reading Eagle, recently wrote a column announcing that the Eagle website would no longer permit commenting on stories. He said the decision was made after much discussion and many complaints.
In the past year since we started pre-approval of comments, other major media websites have instituted a similar practice. There are now full-time jobs being advertised for journalists to monitor commenting.
Why, some may ask, do we allow it to continue?
The web in the age of Google and Facebook is an environment that shuns control of information and promotes openness and sharing. At our website, we embrace that philosophy -- opening our newsgathering processes to the public, inviting input on everything from stories we're planning to spot news as it develops to the streets in your neighborhood that need to be fixed.
At its best, the web and the dialogue it invites is a better place than the staid media of the past. But monitoring the abusers who defend themselves as holding truth in their hands becomes increasingly difficult.
At, they've closed the door on web commenting. We're trying to keep it open with an eye on what's crossing the threshold. It's becoming more difficult every day.

No comments:

Post a Comment