A breakdown in the systems we use to moderate and manage comments appearing on our website occurred this past weekend, with the result that some unacceptable comments were posted. The offensive comments included some that far exceeded the boundaries of civil discussion that we require, and in allowing them to be posted at all or to remain up as long as they did embarrassed The Times and more broadly many in the Vineyard community. This was a management failure on my part as publisher, and I apologize to you all.
As a bit of background, The Times employs a system that moderates online comments after they’ve been posted, consciously favoring immediacy and a light editorial hand instead of reviewing a queue for posts before publication. In conjunction with a recent change eliminating anonymous postings we have been extremely pleased with the balance that’s been struck. Our story regarding President Obama’s upcoming stay in Chilmark, however, exposed the comment feature of our site to substantial pressures and the protocols we had in place were inadequate to the task.
As a result of our experience this weekend we’ve taken several steps to strengthen our internal moderation protocols. Coupled with more vigilance (and a bit less dependence on the positive trends we’ve seen in recent postings to our site) I believe we’ll do a much better job managing the comments without suffocating the feature with excessive rules and reviews.
- We’ve applied a new set of filters which should help screen out blatantly offensive language;
- We’ve adopted a formal internal management system for reviewing comments;
- We’ve been unable to find a check-system allowing direct feedback within the comment section but we’ve created a single email address — firstname.lastname@example.org— to which all concerns, questions, complaints and suggestions regarding online comments should be directed (multiple messages and destinations actually hinder us);
- We are leaving the article and attached comments up, and will be especially watchful regarding future comments;
- I’ve been vividly reminded to anticipate and prepare for the potential challenges that a particular subject matter may engender.
We remain committed to an effective, useful comment function. Despite our confidence in the measures we’re taking, though, we expect our systems will continue to be tested from time to time; we don’t imagine that we’ve created a perfect set of protocols.
And, there are compromises necessary. For one thing, if we decide we need to remove a comment the entire thread — all the responses and conversation generated by that comment — needs to be removed as well. This means a well-stated rebuke will disappear from the discussion, not because we edited it out but because it was attached to a comment we excised. And also, because moderation is labor-intensive and costly, we can’t promise immediate attention as a matter of routine; we’ll do our best, but we’ve set an outside boundary of 12 hours to moderate, and if necessary, delete, offensive comments from the site. We hope to do better than that, as often as possible.
To be clear, this embarrassing episode resulted from a management lapse on my part, and not from any disregard for the standards we set for ourselves or the sensibilities of our readers. I believe we’ve learned important lessons and made significant improvements.
Peter Oberfest, Publisher