Newspaper e-forums attract mudslinging
BLOOMINGTON, Minn. -- To post or not to post? That's the question -- and the dilemma -- for Minnesota newspaper editors when it comes to including reader comments with stories on their Web sites. Editors, publishers and other newspaper officials ...
BLOOMINGTON, Minn. -- To post or not to post?
That's the question -- and the dilemma -- for Minnesota newspaper editors when it comes to including reader comments with stories on their Web sites.
Editors, publishers and other newspaper officials from across the state met here last week to discuss issues confronting our industry. The title of the 2008 Minnesota Newspaper Association convention said it all: "Navigating Through Changing Times."
Topics included newspapers' long-unchallenged business model, new content initiatives and ideas for how to better integrate technology -- especially the Web -- with our decades-old print franchises.
But judging from a panel discussion on newspaper ethics in which I participated, one of the biggest concerns is how we open our digital doors to comments from our communities without turning our Web sites into electronic street brawls.
For years, newspapers have seen the ability of anyone to post opinions to news message boards as one of the most powerful applications offered by the Web. We add a board. Readers dash off comments. Click. Click. Instant town hall debate.
The problem for us and other papers is that those well-intentioned discourses sometimes degenerate into something far removed from civic civility: Name-calling, swearing, inaccuracy and remarks that, if included in our print editions, could get us in serious legal trouble have all proven problematic. Much of it has been stuff we wouldn't want associated with our newspapers' names, which we try to ensure stand for accuracy and reliability.
Readers tell me the "Talk About It" boards at duluth newstribune.com are among their favorite features. Yet we have seen them slide so seriously off track that we've had to remove comments or take down whole strings of posts. A comments board on a news story about deer hunting, for example, found readers fighting and one accusing a specific person of being a "poacher." Another on a local issue morphed into a discussion about allegations that Thomas Jefferson fathered illegitimate children with slaves, complete with racial epithets.
Duluth police are investigating a comment posted with a December story about the city's retiree health-care liability as a possible death threat against former Duluth Mayor Herb Bergson and Chief Administrative Officer John Hall.
What's an editor to do?
At the News Tribune, we've decided, sadly, that we cannot allow unmonitored comments, even in our relatively civil community. For the past 10 months, we have required an editor to check every comment before it's posted. We have basic rules: No attacks on other posters. No vulgar or inappropriate language. No excessively long posts or posts containing long URLs. And no posts unrelated to the discussion topic.
Pretty simple and still pretty open. But monitored, though some have charged censored.
Some papers, especially smaller weeklies, don't have the manpower to monitor comments and still post them in a timely fashion. Lynda Jensen, editor of two small weeklies about an hour west of the Twin Cities, said readers don't mind waiting before she can screen comments and post them on her site. But she wishes she had a better option.
Features such as comments boards offer new opportunities for weeklies to publish fresh and, often, daily content, allowing them to expand their publication cycles and become relevant in new ways to readers.
Other papers, such as the St. Cloud Times, a daily slightly smaller than the News Tribune, have taken the opposite approach, keeping their comments doors wide open and relying on the free market of reader interactions to self-correct discussions. The Times' site, like the News Tribune's, offers a feature that allows readers to report violations that may require editor intervention.
Chris Ison, a former Minneapolis Star Tribune reporter who now teachers journalism at the University of Minnesota, posed a difficult question for all of us on the ethics panel: If we require writers of letters to the editor in the print edition to sign their names, why don't we do the same for online posters?
Good question. We do require posters to be registered users of our site. That means they must provide a screen name, an e-mail address and a phone number. But we know that some register with phony information. We do record the Internet footprints of all posters and can track them down if necessary. But we do that only in extreme cases. And by then, the damage from rotten comments usually has been done.
Critics often skewer newspapers for simply replicating their print models online. Allowing posted comments is one way we at the News Tribune are doing something different online while still putting safeguards in place to keep the quality of discussion on the level readers expect from content associated with the News Tribune.
Journalists in our newsroom talk about this issue a lot and would welcome readers' thoughts, whether by phone, letter or e-mail. We'll also put up a comments board with this column. But if you submit, please remember: Keep it clean.
ROB KARWATH is executive editor of the News Tribune. He can be reached at 720-4177 or at email@example.com .