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Friday, December 20, 2013
Digital Media Toolbox

Why should Web comments be different from letters to the editor?

By Gil Asakawa

I was recently interviewed by a college student doing research on the "censorship" of comments by news organizations. From the idealistic tone of her inquiry, she revealed that she thought newsrooms hiring a staffer just to manage comments was an outrageous affront to the First Amendment.

Comments are a thorny aspect of news media websites, no doubt about it.

In general, news organizations work very hard to connect with audiences. That's at the heart of the "citizen journalist" buzzword of a f ew years ago, and also the impetus for the current buzzword "engagement."

We want to engage with our readers and viewers — our audiences. News in the digital era can, and should be, a two-way street. It shouldn't be a one-way spew of what a small group of elites (and yes, people who run newsrooms are cultural elites in terms of education, privilege and often, income) determines is important.

So we encourage readers to send in contributions, to vote in mostly pointless, unscientific polls, to submit story ideas and offer themselves up as sources for our reporting. And w e invite them to comment on our content.

Ideally, comments are thoughtful responses to the stories, and they can be pro or con, but the point is to advance the discussion sparked by the news coverage.

Sometimes, however, the comments — especially on hot-topic issues such as LGBT rights, abortion, immigration and now, gun rights — can devolve from lively and thought provoking discussion to grim, ugly, inappropriate flame wars.

That's when comments get turned off or deleted, which the student who contacted me considers censorship.

Just because a news organization is online doesn't mean it operates under different rules than in the "old media" days.

Here are my thoughts on commenting on news sites:

• First, "censorship" is a loaded word, especially for journalists, and I don't consider the management of content on a news website to be "censorship" in the traditional sense. It's managing the content, and filtering out inappropriate, offensive or off-topic content from audience members.

• Back in the bad old days before the Internet, people sent letters to the editor. It was understood that not every letter would be published, and that letters that did get published would be edited. You could send a 20-page diatribe but nobody cried foul and cited their First Amendment rights if their diatribe didn't get published or was edited down to an appropriate length.

• The public — the audience — doesn't have a First Amendment right to say whatever they want on a private news media site. Yes, this flies in the face of news companies wanting to "engage" with audiences and to create more interaction and "user-generated content," but the fact is, if readers want to air their opinion, they have a right to start their own blog and say whatever they want.

• At every company I've worked for, I've overseen efforts to manage comments. Those efforts include not turning them on for certain topics at all; turning off comments when the "discussion" gets out of hand; allowing users to flag content that a staffer would then review for appropriateness and remove if warranted; and using third-party services including (most commonly) Facebook for users to have to log in to post comments.

Paul Voakes, a journalism ethics professor and former director of the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Colorado where I now work, added one more very important reason news sites reserve the right to manage comments.

"We have an important holdover from the pre-Internet Dark Ages: libel. If someone posts a libelous comment in a reader comments section, the host is legally responsible. In that sense it's exactly like the old letters to the editor," he said.

Voakes continued in an email: "Ethically, the 'publisher' is equally responsible for everything that appears on the site. If you're trying to be that edgy, youth-oriented site, you'll filter comments far differently than the Denver Post might, but it's still filtering to some extent. I believe that any news site that lets everything stay up in the comments section is being irresponsible, both legally and ethically."

It's a sad fact of modern media that as we embrace our audiences as part of a virtuous circle of content, we invite the bad with the good to join in the conversation. The point of comments is to allow people to discuss the topic of an article and share thought-provoking insights or their personal experiences and knowledge.

When comments turn nasty, I think the news organization has a responsibility to manage the conversation — or turn off the microphone.

Gil Asakawa is the chairman of SPJ’s Digital Media Committee and student media adviser at the University of Colorado. Interact on Twitter: @gilasakawa.

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