The Washington Post last week announced a new commenting system that editors believe will improve the quality of discussion. This follows recent moves by other news organizations to address a growing concern that inappropriate website comments drive away readers.
Online interactivity is one of the great advancements of our age, and it’s been embraced by ajc.com. Commenting is not limited to news organizations, but since our mission includes fostering community conversation about public affairs, this is an especially rich area for us.
But as commenting has grown, so have the challenges of screening out stuff that doesn’t meet the mission. Like many news sites, we allow anonymous commenting to encourage candor and participation. Our more than 30 blogs receive an average of more than 175,000 comments each month, and that number is growing.
Our guidelines encourage civil conversation and forbid bullying, personal attacks, violent, racist or vulgar language and spam. To enforce guidelines, we use several techniques. Filters screen out the worst of the worst, but other comments do skirt the line.
For those, we use a system of escalating moderation: Comments are posted without advance review, but blog hosts and editors pull down items outside the boundaries. Readers can also report inappropriate comments. Comments that may violate guidelines can be placed into a moderation queue, to be published only after approval, or violators can be permanently banned, depending on the seriousness of the transgression.
We also generally limit commenting to blogs, rather than opening commenting on news stories, which would require even more moderating.
Hosting a blog is a true balancing act, says Maureen Downey, who hosts the Get Schooled blog on ajc.com.
“Comments are helpful as posters often expand the conversation and add to our knowledge of the issue, Downey says. “There are also posters who have nothing to add and use valuable space in doing so. I also don’t like posters who use blogs to lob anonymous and vitriolic attacks on people or commandeer the blog to advance a personal issue or cause. ”
Opinion columnist Jay Bookman agrees that comments offer both great value and great challenges.
“I get a real-time sense of how people are responding to certain events or trends, and often someone’s post will alert me to facts or a source I would otherwise not know about.”
“The biggest problem is the tone that people take. Partisans on both sides can descend to insults and name-calling instead of debate. I try hard to monitor that behavior and minimize it, but it doesn’t go away.
Moderation can take away from a writer’s time to report and develop issues of interest to readers. For that reason, news organizations are finding other solutions:
● Where approval is required for posting each comment, some organizations outsource this monitoring.
● Some require user registration and require commenters to post using their real name, or a registered screen name. Some require a real-name Facebook login.
● In systems like the ones announced by The New York Times, the organization identifies “trusted commenters” who have a history of strong, appropriate contributions. Those are posted without moderation, while more moderation is applied to untrusted comments.
● Some allow readers to vote on comments, elevating popular ones to the top of the page and pushing down ones that get few votes.
Bookman sees both advantages and disadvantages to the approaches.
“Making people register in order to post, or even requiring them to use their Facebook login, as some outlets have done, would strip anonymity from posters and force them to act more civil, but it would also make them less candid about their real thoughts. I’m not sure how I feel about that balance.”
Chris Kraft, leader of our team that publishes ajc.com, says we are considering some of the above options and are committed to improving the quality of discourse.
“We love the discussions on our blogs,” Kraft said. “They are insightful, informative, and engaging. We’re going to continue making sure they stay that way, and that a small percentage of our readers don’t ruin it for the rest.”
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution wants to explain to readers what we do and why. Public editor Shawn McIntosh writes a column every other week to provide insight into newsroom operations and the newspaper’s role in the community. You may also discuss this column and coverage of other topics at editor Kevin Riley’s Facebook page at http://www.facebook.com/ajceditor.