Publishers struggle to control online reader comments
See if this topic hits home with students by asking for a show of hands from those who've commented on articles or news topics at this publication's web site or any other. Has anyone seen personal attacks or offensive comments? Are reader forums worthwhile?
Ask students to scroll through this paper's forums on sensitive issues -- the Iraq war, political candidates, President Bush -- and find examples of respectful disagreements, as well as any juvenile name-calling. Have them read a few comments aloud for a discussion about whether they're effective and persuasive.
"Join the conversation," as newspapers say. If class members already are registered to post comments, or want to do so, suggest that they select a topic of interest -- perhaps related to education, sports or pop culture -- and post a brief comment or vote in a survey. As a possible follow-up, revisit the site after a day to see what others posted.
Giving readers more ways to comment on issues in the news seems like a good idea, so many newspapers and magazines encourage online visitors to share views in discussion forums, reader polls or at the end of articles, commentaries and blog postings. But as in other crowded arenas, especially settings where participants are anonymous and faceless, crude voices can outnumber or drive away civil ones.
Vicious rants, personal insults and even death threats have embarrassed several major media outlets recently and make editors rethink their invitations to “tell us what you think.” The Washington Post blocked all comments to an article this year that drew a flood of racist comments. The nastiness highlights challenges that sprout up when print publications use new media technology to create an old-style “town square” where people exchange ideas, debate issues and have conversations that editors hope are enlightening, uplifting, entertaining, amusing and civil.
That’s tough to achieve in real life. And when participants hide behind screen names, a dialogue can skid into the gutter easily. The biggest problem is the vast volume of comments. No company can afford monitors and moderators who prescreen postings. Software filters block specific profanity, though not necessarily curses that omit a few letters. ABC News has a program that lets site administrators spot the word “hate” near descriptions of an ethnic or religious group.
Editor says: "The sheer volume of the comments makes it impossible to monitor every one in real time. And there is an expectation on the part of the audience for a kind of immediacy. We are not intervening with a heavy hand." – Kinsey Wilson, USA Today executive editor
Professor says: "To approve every comment before it goes up tends to syncopate the conversation so much that you might as well not have the conversation." -- Jeff Jarvis, director of interactive journalism, City University of New York
Can papers be sued over public comments? No. The Communication Decency Act, enacted in 1996, shields web forum owners from liability for posted comments. "Congress has said that the soapbox should not be held liable for what the speaker has said," says an attorney at the nonprofit Electronic Frontier Foundation.
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