This is an expanded version of a op/ed piece which originally appeared in The Day, of New London, Conn., on May 23, 2008.
Director, New England News Forum
Flood, stream or sewer – however you characterize the flow of information enabled by the Internet it presents daily business, ethical and editing challenges, for news organizations.
I was among four invited panelists and nearly a dozen or so other reporters, editors or readers of The Day who spent more than two hours earlier this month helping the paper with a particular challenge – how to handle reader comments posted on the paper’s website under or near stories. One on of the panelists was New London Schools Supt. Chris Clouet.
The daily paper is one product produced by what is really a service company. That service has always been to provide practical and entertaining information consumers need to get through their day and to be effective, informed citizens. But increasingly news organizations are doing more than deliver news and facilitate commerce (through advertisements).
On the web, they are serving as a navigator, advisor, referee, sometimes even a teacher/coach – helping us to find and use reliable information, and providing a platform for us to share it, too. I’ve coined the term “information valet” to describe the jist of these four roles. Moderating reader comments is part of it.
“I think there are some serious issues here that we as a society have to deal with,” Supt. Clouett told us during the May 6 (2008) discussion in The Day’s conference room. “The problem that I have confronted . . . there’s a mentality of a food fight that goes on here. This is a situation where the free flow of ideas has more often become a sewer . . . a lot of people with very reasonable ideas . . . including critical ideas . . . are crowded out and intimidated by the shouting.”
Reflecting on our forum gathering, it seems there are some (1) challenges and (2) opportunities for The Day in this new information ecosystem, and some (3) choices to make about how to handle reader comments. Let me discuss each.
The challenge side of the ledger includes tricky questions, but it’s outweighed by opportunity:
n The sheer volume of what appears on blog comments can sometimes overwhelm meaning and the reader and you end up with a sense of information overload – too much too digest.
n Sometimes rumors propagate in the blogosphere. The best public example of that – and the minute I say this I realize I’m feeding the rumor – that Barack Obama received a Muslim education early in his life. Once a rumor is out there, just commenting on the rumor propagates it further. So that is I think is a difficult challenge for totally open blog posting – what happens when somebody puts up a really scurrilous rumor of some sort?
n Will public officials be less willing to serve, or story subjects reluctant to be interviewed if they know that a published and web-posted story will become grist for anonymous comments?
n How do you make it clear where a story ends and comments begin? A story may have been subject to editing and reporting procedures that assure a high degree of accuracy. One panelist worried the public doesn’t understand that appended reader comments are not.
n A challenge – for journalists -- is the loss of the agenda-setting role for the news organization. With open commenting (and the multiple information sources provided by the Internet) the gatekeeping function is gone. The public can readily get information from anywhere. But that doesn’t mean journalists have lost their mission. More than ever, they will hold the attention of consumers not through limiting the supply of information but by sifting it, provide advice which cures information overload as well as exclusive and critical local information.
ANONYMOUS COMMENTS -- THE BIG CHALLENGE
Perhaps the biggest challenge involves anonymous comments. Experience nationally shows that web sites allowing anonymous comments, particular the political sphere and on social issues of one sort of another, inevitably receive racist, sexist, profane, personally attacking or unsubstantiated comments. Most large sites have human or technical filters to block or quickly remove them. It is human nature that as we hide behind a cloak of anonymity, our comments tend to be more extreme.
“I think the presumption has to be toward allowing anonymous speech because it does have its place and can provide important details that actually may not come to light,” Boston-based press lawyer Robert Bertsch, a fellow panelist, said. “Anonymous speech also promotes candor that also promotes speech of those who might be fearful of retaliation of what they say.”
EPITOME OF RESPONSIBLE ANONYMITY -- THE FEDERALIST PAPERS
BlueConnecticut blogger John Wirzbicki of Noank (Conn.), another panelist, agreed with Bertsch. He notes that U.S. "founding fathers" James Madison and Alexander Hamilton wrote anonymously what have come to be known as the Federalist Papers – bedrock political theory on forming the nation. And Thomas Jefferson’s authorship of the Declaration of Independence only came to light later, he said. And Tom Paine distributed “Common Sense,” anonymously. “Anonymity was useful for those folks and probably for this country,” says Tom.
Against these challenges are many opportunities:
n Reader comments posted on stories and elsewhere provide a tip service to people in the news business. It’s a wonderful way to cull through and look for stories.
n They’re also an escape valve for the public – and ability for folks to get their message out without having to waste thousands of copies of newsprint and with a limitless amount of space. That’s a good thing for the public sphere.
n Comments give the public to serve as a sort of public wag, ombudsman or watchdog on the media – an important role. News organizations need to be open to constructive criticism and posted comments are one source.
n The web allows a new form of reporting. Now editors can throw a story idea out to the public on the web and say: “What do you think about this? What can you contribute to this story from your experience?” Some experts are calling this “crowdsourcing,” and Minnesota Public Radio calls their version of it “Public Insight Journalism.” Now The Day can research stories from a blog post or comment, weaving a tapestry of richer information about a subject that reporters might once have worked just by phone, missing out on uptapped, unknown sources.
n The web allows long-form journalism to flourish. Reader comments themselves can add context, error correction and just more facts to a story or issue. Eyewitnesses to major stories such as the Virginia Tech shootings, or the Minnesota highway bridge collapse, or a presidential debate, can add expert testimony which builds a richer report and wider perspective.
The last point raises one caveat about website comments – how does the reader assess the bias, point of view, or potential conflicts of the commentator – or verify that what they are saying is true? An important business asset of the newspaper is its reputation for fairness, accuracy, completeness, respect for facts – and some sense of balance. This is were tension lies -- the relationship between the paper’s traditional trusted role and how it treats reader online comments. And, as Bertsch noted – that’s a business issue for The Day and others papers – not to have their reputation tarnished by the company they keep, if posts go off-color or devoid of facts.
WHAT ARE THE USERS' EXPECTATIONS?
For example, as a reader, do you expect the former gatekeeper to still try and achieve or suggest any kind of balance in blog posts and the comments that attach to them? If there is a particular person who rants over and over again beating up on in a particular point of view, while other views which are clearly mainstream go unrepresented, is that a reason for The Day to moderate that commentator? Or should The Day’s editors just assume that if people don’t feel like commenting that’s the de facto law of the web public space?
A complete free-for-all of information may erode public support for First Amendment values such as reporters’ rights, access to information, source protection. If the public sees what happens on blog posts and comments as an extension of journalism, and it is seen as irresponsible or bias, does the public then paint the rest of the moderated professional media with the same brush stroke? By enabling user comments, do journalists our presumptive of independence and authority?
These sorts of questions are putting a much bigger burden on readers – we now have to read critically and with an eye to the source of each post, comment or story. Should news literacy skills be taught in school?
That runs counter to the newsroom culture, observed panelist Marcel Dufresne, a journalism professor. “If someone is an anonymous tipster, you don’t let them shoot from the bushes and anonymously attack the superintendent of schools,” said DuFresne. “You filter that. If they have information or documents you use that to advance the journalism, but you don’t let people just shoot from the bushes. And that’s pretty standard. And that’s why anonymous sources essentially have been in a lot of newsrooms not used very much, very often.”
SOLUTIONS: FILTERS, EDITORS, NAMES, DIFFERENTIATION?
So what are the solutions for The Day, as its editors seek advice on how to deal with website comments? Here are some of the “tools” under consideration, or already in effect. Which do you support?
n Profanity filters, which electronically strip out “bad words” or reject a post which contains them. Editors can set the sensitivity level of the software, and the specific words targeted.
n Tasking an editor to review every comment before it goes live on the web. A less burdensome solution is to be selective: Withhold automatic posting of the first few comments of a newly registered user.
n Refrain from allowing reader comments on news about deaths, births or weddings, where experience has shown inappropriate commentary appears. Be selective about which news stories will include the post-a-comment option.
n Require anyone who wishes to post to provide their real name an address, and email even if they are then going to use a pseudonym to post. This allows The Day to check with an individual about questionable posting or behavior and guards against multiple pseudonyms for one person.
n Allow users to rate the comments of each other, in conjunction with oversight by editors, and to flag comments which they consider objectionable, for editorial review.
n Differentiate the comments of pseudonymous vs. real-name comments by typography, size or color, so the public understands they are different.
n Create a separate area of the web where people whose ideas are targeted by negative comments can respond in a more respectful environment.
For The Day, perhaps the key challenge is making sure is readers users understand that the information service it offers on the web operates under different rules than the newspaper. A piece of inaccurate information may appear, perhaps briefly, on a comment without verification or response. That can occur; it’s the price of a more open public sphere. You can’t assume the accuracy of every word you read any website – even more so than in a newspaper. And our responsibility as readers is to keep that in mind.