Website commenting at its best engages readers in dialogue, brings information into the reporting of news stories, and adds perspective to opinions.
At its worst, it ridicules the subjects of our news stories, attacks other commenters, and abandons civility to prejudice and hate.
I am not the only editor astounded by how mean-spirited people can become when hiding behind a keyboard pseudonym.
Thus, it is easy to understand the recent decision by The Reading Eagle to ban all commenting on their website. It would certainly be easier and less time consuming than wading through comments at all hours of day and night to weed out the nasties.
I'm a glass half-full person, however, and I cannot condone cutting off the good comments to avoid policing the bad. Commenting is not going away from our website, and Sound-Off is not going to become letters to the editor.
Both are forums that let people ask questions that they might feel foolish about if their names were attached or offer opinions that they might not have the courage to voice if everyone knew who was talking.
The opportunity that both forums provide -- where else can you discover how to get weeds out of the driveway, borrow a wheelchair, get the name of a forgotten song from the lyrics you remember, or vent about the driver who cut you off on 422 -- is valuable.
When the content drifts into irrelevance, irresponsible attacks and foolishnesss, it becomes our jobs as editors, I believe, to find a way to keep the good and weed out the bad.
The particular difficulty with website comments is that they become live with a keystroke or a click. Sound-Off involves speaking into a phone, and from our end, it involves listening to what people say and they typing into our computer system the comments to be published. If messages are lengthy, inappropriate, mean-spirited, or libelous, they're easily ignored with a delete button and a move onto the next waiting in line.
With website comments, they already exist when we look at them for pre-approval so the watchfulness must be heightened. Some expressions mean one thing to an editor but something else to the audience; some comments would be appropriate by themselves but in context of the story, the words are an attack.
The web is a habit that depends on instantaneous feedback and input. Commenters and readers of comments do not want to wait for us to approve a compilation. Everything is fast, and approving comments if done thoughtfully takes time. The Sound-Off audience is not looking for more than one dose a day; the web audience comes back several times and expects new stuff.
It's difficult -- but it's important.
What is also important is that people feel safe being interviewed for a story or posting a comment on our website. Our goal a year ago when we started pre-approval of comments was to foster a safe online environment for dialogue. Some people have pushed the limits of "good dialogue," and so we are now tightening our rules.
A specific set of guidelines for commenting will be posted on our website for commenters to see, and we will enforce those guidelines in reviewing comments.
They are not too difficult to adhere to -- no attacks, no defamation, no inciting of violence, no racism, no screaming. Commenters must register -- that is not new -- and understand that we reserve the right not to publish a comment.
Last week, we hosted a Community Media Lab with some of the bloggers in the Pottstown area, some of whom are part of our TownSquare network and some who are not. We talked for an hour and a half about website commenting -- the good, the bad and the ugly -- and pretty much agreed that as publishers, whether of a news website or a blog we have the right to decide what words we want to allow on our domain.
You can hear what some of the bloggers had to say on the topic on the video that appears here. The importance of maintaining a healthy dialogue on our website through the reactions and comments of readers was reinforced by our blogging network. The individuals in our Media Lab are among intelligent and committed people who are passionate about their community. And their views reminded me of the value in differing opinions, in debate, in the enlightenment of contributing information and ideas to those of others on the web.
Beginning today, our rules on commenting will be more specific and will be policed with more vigilance. The goal is not to limit or restrict but rather to free up the space to have more meaningful conversations.
Sign on. Say what you think. We aim to make the experience of talking with us and your community a rewarding one. Like I said, I see the glass half full.