From the time newspapers took a cue from blogs and added comments to online stories, we’ve been embroiled in debate.
I’ve been in the thick of it at Cincinnati.Com, where a big part of my job is in monitoring our site’s comments, maintaining our moderation policy and fielding lots of angry correspondence from staff and readers regarding those comments.
Everyone wants to debate whether the comments have any value (they do to those who comment), who’s responsible for their content (the law says the commenter is responsible, not the institution, but that doesn’t stop people from insisting otherwise). They question if removing comments is stifling discussion on a topic – and if that’s such a bad thing.
Online comments are a gigantic albatross for our sites, but I believe we need them. While the amount of racist remarks, predictable political attacks and name calling on our stories could fill a book – they are worth it for the ones that really reflect a community’s mindset.
Newspapers are supposed to be a community hub – and we can’t fill that role without giving our readers a way to respond to the news the same way they do other places online.
At Cincinnati.Com, we do after-the-fact moderation (where users can report comments) on our 10,000+ comments each week in accordance with discussion guidelines we set up in May 2008. It’s an imperfect system – stuff stays on the site that shouldn’t because it isn’t found or reported – but people get to have their say.
When the comments really start flying off-base, sometimes we have to make the choice to remove them altogether. WaPo Ombudsman Andrew Alexander recently wrote about that paper’s recent struggle with such a choice. They use the same system as the Enquirer and it failed on them when a subject of their story was vilified by his family in the comments….