No comment

The Portland (Maine) Press Herald has shut down the comments on stories on the three websites it operates.

As the Press Herald’s publisher explained it, the conversation had become uncivil, abusive and hurtful to readers and sources. He also said that comments might be restored after the Press Herald decides how to make readers more accountable for what they say.

What do you think of the Press Herald’s decision? What do you think of the Missourian’s comments policy?

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26 Responses to No comment

  1. Dustin says:

    The trend that the Poynter article details is the move toward reader accountability, like the Missourian policy. It make take more time and effort, but it’s the right way to go. Online comments lend a destructive shroud of invulnerability. “Nobody knows who I am. I can say whatever I want.”

    Minn. Star Tribune defeats the purpose of comments with its policy to remove them for “selected stories…likely to create moderation problems.” The stories likely to create moderation problems are the ones that need comments sections the most, especially to allow journalists to respond to the community on contentious topics.

  2. Ben Frentzel says:

    Gosh, this is such a problem, indeed. I can’t tell you how many unsavory comments have appeared on the Tribune’s website.

    For instance, there was a story last week about a house fire. The first commenter asked who wanted to start, and over 18 comments exploded in the next hour. They ranged from accusations that the cause of the fire was drug-related (without any evidence) to making fun of the dead cat’s name, “Pookie.”

    The firefighters helped bury that cat on site with its emotionally distraught owners.

    Anonymity is a dangerous and liberating thing. I’m in full support of the Missourian’s policy, specifically its name requirement.

    The hit in comment numbers is a small price to pay for our moral standards and comment integrity.

  3. I think Press Herald’s decision was the right decision to make. If the comments were that vulgar, then they should be taken down. I understand everyone isn’t going to agree on the same topics and debates may form, but there’s a line you have to draw, as a publication, when it comes to your comments section. I also think the Missourian’s comments policy is understanding and fair. A publication’s comments section isn’t a place to lash out your feelings to everyone, but simply a place to state your opinion of the story. And if the opinion is too vulgar for a child or elderly person to read, then it shouldn’t get posted.

  4. To build from Dustin’s second paragraph, it seems like the Minn. Star Tribune’s policy has remnants of the old way of “reporting from a lofty place.” It’s like saying, “Join the conversation…but only when we want you to.”

    Rob Curley had a good point in The Las Vegas Sun’s policy (linked in the Poynter article): “Even at a time when you could be hanged for what you said in public, writers like Ben Franklin and Thomas Paine stood behind what they wrote.” Well said, Curley. At the same time, their decision to keep anonymous comments available separately also has historical basis. The Sun’s is a well-balanced policy that demonstrates careful forethought.

    I like the Missourian policy, and I think accountability in comments is more important than quantity. Yes, we get fewer comments than the Columbia Daily Tribune does, but the people who comment are held responsible for what they say. When identities accompany comments, it also seems more like an actual conversation–it’s not just a bunch of people venting because they can. Instead, it becomes a healthy dialogue, as it should be.

  5. P.S. I think it’s fair to say that even with their names attached, people can seem pretty uninhibited in their comments, like the ones in “Guest Commentary: Help Stop the Bullying” on columbiamissourian.com.

    http://www.columbiamissourian.com/stories/2010/10/20/guest-commentary-help-stop-bullying/

  6. Tony Flesor says:

    I personally love the Missourian’s policy. It just makes sense.

    I haven’t really understood the purpose of screen names or pseudonyms or whatever on the internet. They all went out of style in middle school. If you’re commenting online, you should have to use your actual name. That way you’re accountable for what you say – just like in reality – and you’re forced to recognize that this is a public forum, not some other realm where people don’t matter and your actions have no consequences.

    I also really liked the Huffington Post’s system of giving moderator badges to site users. Gawker sites also allow any user to flag inappropriate comments and commenters gain or lose a “promoted” status based on how they behave on the site. These kinds of things aren’t necessary for everything, but in situations like these where there are thousands of users, it makes sense. It relieves the burden on the actual staff and creates a sense of community on the site.

    Credibility and accountability. Who knew those things could exist on the internet?

  7. tomnagel says:

    Internet comments are historically on the extreme side, and it seems to be the case that internet anonymity facilitates that. In philosophy there’s a joke about the plethora of opinions, valid or not, on the web’s infinite discussion potential called Goodwin’s law – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Goodwin%27s_law

    It’s always a good idea to step back and think about a better way when it’s not going right. At the Missourian.com, it’s good that we allow comments and we see people being accountable when they must log in and I can click a name to see his or her comment history. I also like being able to report comment. I’ve never used it for anything offensive, but I have seen spam comments removed from my story, which I imagine as house cleaning.

  8. Jing Zhao says:

    I can hardly agree with Herald’s decision. I may not agree with what you said, but I will defend to the death your right to say it. Comments may be irresponsible, but responsibility is based on one judgment, and any judgment is subjective. On the contrary, the right to say is a system, which may function well in the long-term.

  9. baileywrites says:

    I love the Missourian’s comment policy. I’m a liiitle unsure about using last names because of personal safety issues, but I really love the transparency. It’s so irritating when people can shoot their mouths off because they’ll never be identified. Unfortunately some people shoot their mouths off even when their name is attached, because they just don’t care.

    Per Poynter’s examples, I like The Huffington Post and Minneapolis Star Tribune’s policies. Attleboro Sun Chronicle asking for credit card information? Yikes. There’s a whole other privacy discussion.

    Finally, perhaps I’m a little Girl Scout, but I flag comments a lot–mostly on npr.org, interestingly. If something is irrelevant and hateful or inaccurate, I alert the moderators. Beyond politics, where the obvious bulk of comments take root, I feel that religions specifically are attacked a lot, and often by people outside of whatever religion they’re talking about. I don’t flag them if someone is just expressing their opinion, but if they actually are making incorrect statements about the religion, attacking the personal worth of people who practice it, etc., then I’ll either flag it or leave my own comment.

  10. Kyle Deas says:

    I totally agree with the Press Herald’s decision. In fact, I think that comments sections are actively poisonous to newspapers, and I wish that more papers would close them – at the very least on hard news articles.

    What it comes down to, for me, is credibility. Look: you wouldn’t let someone write a nasty letter under your letterhead. You wouldn’t give someone your email password to send out spam. You wouldn’t let people stick offensive signs on your lawn. And I don’t think it’s our responsibility to give a megaphone to everyone who wants to disseminate their hateful, uninformed, insensitive, or just plain impulsive opinions in our name. A newspaper should assume full responsibility for everything that’s printed under its auspices.

    I do think that the Missourian’s comment policy is better than that of most newspapers out there, in large part because comments and usernames persist. But at the same time, as Kellie pointed out, some people are more than happy to vent their spleen even when their full name is attached to it, and I just don’t think we should give them the forum for it. There’s a whole internet out there for them.

  11. Kyle Deas says:

    A quick follow up.

    Ask yourself: how often, when you finish reading an article on the New York Times or the Washington Post or the Missourian, do you read through the comments and learn something valuable, hear viewpoints you didn’t expect, and come away edified?

    Now: how often do you read through the comments and let your mouth slacken a bit and wonder how people can be so vicious to one another?

    If the former really happens to you more often than the latter, I’m reading the wrong sources.

  12. rosiedowney says:

    I also like the Missourian’s comment policy because it allows our reporters to manage the conversation online. I get really happy when I see that one of our reporters has engaged the readers in conversation on the website.

    For instance, Kellie Kortraba was recently communicating with some readers about a letter to the editor that a man named Gary Schmitz sent in about the new high school. She was polite. She was informative. She was to the point. I think her involvement helped keep the conversation fairly civil.

  13. Brooke Shunatona says:

    Yes, it is juvenile to hide behind an alias and comment however you please. For the most part, inappropriate comments are written to get a rise out of people who care.

    But, if these people are actually upset by something, I think we need to respond to that.

    Perhaps what the Minn. Star Tribune should require is contact information. If a reader is commenting on how upset they are, there may be more to the story and more to look into. Maybe underneath all of the “vile, crude, insensitive and vicious postings” are real issues.

    We’ve been learning how journalists are trying to better communicate with their readers, and shutting down a comment section is not the way to do so.

  14. Kyle Brynsvold says:

    To be honest, it seems like a lot more websites should be adopting a policy similar to the Missourian’s. It just makes sense. While there are loopholes (using a common name such as Joe Smith) it makes conversation more civil. It may discourage people from commenting, but the people that really want to comment will go through the trouble of creating an account to do so.

    The Press Herald’s decision was the right one. If comments get out of control, it can make your website look amateur-ish. They need to just get rid of the feature all together for right now until they come up with a better strategy for managing the comments.

  15. Allison Seibel says:

    I think the Missourian’s comment policy is great. I think it is very smart to require a first and last name because it does make the commenter accountable for what they say. Also, I think people are far less likely to write bad, vulgar, offensive, etc. comments when their first and last name is attached to it. Maybe we get less comments than the Tribune, but I think most of our comments are very smart and actually start discussion – they’re not mindless, unintelligent statements made by someone who feels safe hiding behind their computer.

    As far as completely shutting down commenting, I’m not sure if I agree with that. I think commenting is great in most instances because it sparks discussion with our readers and I think makes them more interested sometimes. It also helps us get feedback. If there are negative comments, I think they just need to be moderated and taken down on a case by case basis – even if there is a lot of them and it’s annoying/tedious to do. I don’t think the solution is to shut down commenting completely – that takes away from the connection we want to have with our readers.

  16. Laura says:

    The most compelling reason why I like the Missourian’s policy on commenting is because it is simple. The Attleboro Sun Chronicle, on the other hand, complicates identity by requiring credit card verification just to post a comment on a story! 1) This excludes people who don’t have a credit card but do have opinions and 2) Having to give first and last names is intimidating enough to those who want to hide behind anonymity.

    I agree with Joy’s comments about how objectivity can be put on a higher pedestal than necessary. If we don’t hold on to any communication between media and audience, we are no longer a service to the community. We need to consider what the community wants us to pay attention to. Even if we have the best information out there, if no one reads it, what’s the point?

    But then I remember the quote on the dry erase board in the conference room, “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”

  17. Caitlin Wherley says:

    I really like the Missourian’s comment policy. However, as with many online publications that allow comments, I feel that some users are commenting just to comment.
    Rather than removing comments altogether, I think the Press Herald would have benefited greatly by requiring a valid e-mail address or other type of contact information when commenting on their site. By removing the comments entirely, the Press Herald is defeating the purpose of having an online publication — community interaction, involvement and response.

  18. sakitu says:

    By removing comments, the Portland Press Herald has sent a message to its readers– we won’t tolerate or condone your “vile, crude, insensitive, and vicious postings.” And I see nothing wrong with that– as long as the Press Herald eventually brings the comments back. Hopefully they’ll use this time to develop a new comments policy. I think the Sun Chronicle’s credit card requirement is ridiculous and probably turns away most commenters, but I like the Huffington Post’s moderator system Tony refers to. Of course the Missourian system is pretty good, too.

    It’s only if the Press Herald doesn’t bring the comments back that they’ll have a problem. It’s one thing to send a message and seek a remedy by removing comments, another to punish commenters. If they never bring the comments back, they’ll just be shooting themselves in the foot. Journalism isn’t a one-way street anymore; you have to have a conversation these days.

  19. asgrund says:

    I think the Press Herald made a bad decision. Having a news site without a comments section is like having a newspaper that refuses to cover anything controversial. Comments are crucial to the news conversation. The fact that comments were so passionate that the comments got ugly shows the newspaper which issues are important to people.

    I am very fond of the Missourian policy. I believe it does a lot to prevent the problems that the Press Herald faced. I do hope that the Press Herald takes time off to correct the problem and then puts the comments section back up.

  20. jaclyndipasquale says:

    I completely agree with the Portland Press Herald’s decision. I think people need to be accountable for their comments and actions because they do have the potential to cause some serious harm. Too often people use anonymous blog posts as a way to post hurtful and sometime vulgar things. So the Missourian’s policy of requiring a name and email is a great way to cut some of that down.

  21. I think that the Missourian’s comment policy is very much in line with the principle of accuracy. If someone gives up a tip about something, it’s much easier to contact them if we have a first and last name and make sure that they’re giving us accurate information before we look into it ourselves.
    However, I do think it’s interesting that comments increase at such a high rate when people do not have to put a name. A possible idea would be to allow for anonymous comments, but to have them filtered before hitting the site – and letting the reader know that their comment may not appear if it’s anonymous because someone will check it. Maybe that would’ve helped the Portland Press Herald as well.

  22. Kurt Woock says:

    It seems that The Portland Press Herald is taking down the comment section because they want to fix it, not because they don’t want to have it. It seems it might be too hard to calmly deliberate a better policy while worrying about the existing system. a few weeks of reflection and research could yield a better policy than if they acted in total reaction. I guess we’ll know their level of dedication, partly, by how long it takes to come up with a new policy.

  23. I completely believe in holding people accountable for their actions, and in this case, by putting their first and last names. I’ve come to despise this age we’ve entered where people can be even more hurtful and crude because they are simply another IP address. You must be held accountable for your words and actions, and I don’t think there should be exceptions when it comes to the internet.

    So, in that case, I agree with what The Portland Press Herald is doing and I think in that sense, the Missourian comment policy is strong.

  24. Sean Leahy says:

    I couldn’t agree more with the Missourian’s comment policy.

    Too many times verbal attacks are made behind a veil of anonymity, and sometimes they lead to an explosion of petty (and sometimes damaging) arguments.

    If someone believes in something strongly enough, it is appropriate to ask he or she to be accountable in expressing the opinion by asking for a name.

  25. I appreciate the professional tips that Amanda Hinnant gave us today in class. The main surprising reminder for me was to refer to people by their professional title. I think I have been mixing it up too much.

    I originally believed that I should address people by their title and last name, but at some point over boot camp we were told to speak to people by their first name, make them just people. I think we were supposed to use people’s first name to put them on common ground as us. I got pretty comfortable with this and understand the value of it.

    When I interned in Washington DC for a lobbying firm I had to remember that Congressional people are simply people and technically work for me. This is similar to city council members.

    So now I am a bit confused about how I should refer to people. I suppose I will refer to people formally until I have had a conversation or two with them.

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