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Handling inappropriate story comments

As newspapers rush to get readers involved and interacting with stories, many if not most are adding story chats or comments. (We did this at the Stater this fall, and often we ran a “Campus Chat” column on the Forum page with the best comments.) Personally, I think it’s a great way to get instant feedback and to open the dialogue beyond the 12-inch story.

However, then you have problems like this, where the Ft. Lauderdale paper has repeated instances of racists comments being posted (link courtesy of Romenesko).

I remember the day I learned that I would have to read and monitor every comment that was posted to StaterOnline. Tim, the law professor and legal adviser for the Stater, came into the newsroom one morning. He very rarely ever came into the newsroom, and every time he did I got that sinking feeling, “What now?!”

He handed me two comments printed off the site; neither was particularly bad or libelous, but the potential and insinuation, even I could see, was there. He wanted one removed as soon as possible. I took both down immediately. And then, I felt like a dog with a tail between its legs as he led Ryan and I down to his office to hear his lecture.

After that, every comment was filtered through Ryan and I before it was posted. And there were times when we had to question and decide when something had gone too far. The n-word and any variation of it, which apparently happened several times on the sun-sentinel.com, would never have made it public. (Though, we were especially sensitive to that topic given the whole n-word column blow-up from last year.) Very rarely did we choose not to post a comment.

Pre-approving comments was annoying at best. We had to constantly check our e-mails and the system to make sure we were approving quickly enough to ensure a dialogue. It also meant extra e-mails on top of my already overloaded inbox. It was what we had to do.

Then, I read the court ruling that user posted comment on the Web isn’t subject to the same standards of libel, etc. as a newspaper’s content and asked Tim if that meant I could turn automatic comments back on. He said yes, and so I did. But I chose to keep receiving the e-mail notification, and on occasion I had to go back in and delete some inappropriate ones. Yeah, it still sucked time from my limited schedule, but it was a small price to pay for users being able to communicate directly and in real time.

The moral of the lesson is someone needs to read the comments. Every comment. I don’t think it should be the editor him or herself per se. (I defaulted to it being me and Ryan because we knew how to use the College Publisher system and other editors didn’t.) But someone should.

Even if you won’t get sued, and even if you have no legal reason to worry about what is said on those comment boards, you do have a responsibility to keep the discussion civil. Discriminatory remarks in comments can hurt just as much as they do coming from anywhere else.

Even though you don’t think you are putting your stamp of approval on it, the fact that it runs below your logo and on your domain almost gives it that approval anyway. The fact that you let it exist almost means you condone what has been said. I realized that when I left the comment e-mails on. That had, after all, been the gist of the lecture Tim gave me and Ryan that day in his office. It took some time for me to realize it, but he was, of course, right.

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