News Leadership 3.0

May 07, 2008

Keeping comments clean

News organizations find balance
in monitoring user comments
How does your site encourage debate?

News organizations seem to have a love-hate relationship with user comments. As I mentioned earlier, journalists often respond to the topic with eye-rolls, forlorn sighs or frustrated shrugs.

Clark Hoyt, Public Editor at The New York Times, typified a somewhat grudging view last fall, when the Times began allowing comments on a few stories. The newspaper, Hoyt wrote, “is struggling with a vexing problem. How does the august Times, which has long stood for dignified authority, come to terms with the fractious, democratic culture of the Internet, where readers expect to participate but sometimes do so in coarse, bullying and misinformed ways?”

I would turn that around. While recognizing the challenges that offensive comments pose, I think sites will have more success if they focus on what their users experience and less on self-image (which is not the same as credibility).  Perhaps the question for news organizations is something like this: “What can we do to create an online environment that engages our community, empowers people to share their perspectives, and encourages them to suggest fresh, relevant angles and stories?”

Obviously, a free-for-all that allows offensive comments does not foster such an environment. Rigid control of comments, including screening them before publication, as the Times does, is the opposite end of the pole. It may work for the lofty Times, but the practice sends a message of distrust and takes resources that might better serve journalism in the public interest elsewhere.

Many news organizations have moved to a middle ground of practice. As I noted here, the Miami Herald recently moved from an open, anonymous system to a registration system in an effort to clean up site comments. Another newspaper, The Sacramento Bee, recently dropped the practice of previewing comments.

“We switched earlier this year to moderating comments after they are posted automatically. We put in a flagging system that allows users to object to comments for various reasons. Previously, we reviewed every comment before it went up.  It was very labor intensive, not immediate and we couldn’t keep up,” says Ken Chavez, assistant managing editor for interactive media at the Bee.
“The flagging system has greatly reduced the number of comments we have to review.  A flagged comment comes off the site and is sent to a queue for our review. We either delete the comment all together or restore it to the site, where it can no longer be flagged since it has already passed muster.”

In Newark, The Star-Ledger also requires registration and relies on post-publication monitoring by a central Advance Internet Interactivity Group.

“Members of the group monitor comments, forum posts, user-submitted photos and videos and contributions to our new public blogs. In each of these areas, there are also tools that allow users to alert the group about inappropriate content,” says John Hassell, deputy managing editor. “Newsroom staffers have the ability to remove inappropriate content, but we rarely do; instead, we alert the interactivity group, and they act quickly. Generally speaking, this system works well, and the level of interaction on our sites is very high. The quality of discourse varies wildly, of course, but there is no question that user contributions make our sites better and more engaging. ... Ultimately the quality of the discourse is driven by our community of users, and the more open and accessible we are, the better.”

Encouraging users to report inappropriate comments is key: It helps assure a productive discourse and it reflects new rules of user ownership on the Web. And if comments on a particular story or topic get out of hand, the site always has the last resort of simply shutting comments down while things cool off.

If you are thinking about how to handle comments on your site, here are a couple of resources:
Amy Gahran’s tips on Poynter Online.
Rich Gordon’s advice (via Beth Lawton at Newspaper Association of America)

If you recommend additional resources or have tips and experiences to share, please do so in the comments. (And keep it clean grin)

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Exploring innovation, transformation and leadership in a new ecosystem of news, by journalist and change advocate Michele McLellan.

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