The conversation at our house
The story of humans and technology is the story of how we first invent, and later scramble to sort out, the consequences and ethical issues. Doctors invent miraculous ways to extend life, then must grapple with end-of-life decisions that didn't exist before. We invent cars, then cell phones, and now must debate the legality of using both at once. First comes the new tool - then our conversation about its proper use.
So it is with newspapers and the Internet. This new medium threatens traditional newspaper business models even as it holds out the promise of making journalism - especially community journalism - interactive and participatory in a whole new way. And in their pursuit of this promise, newspapers everywhere are struggling to set rules and boundaries for a powerful new feature: the comments section at the end of an online news story.
Last week, an explosion of emotional, largely anti-Brazilian online comments on The Martha's Vineyard Times web site prompted front-page headlines in both Island newspapers. Intrigued, I went in pursuit of some perspective on how other newspapers are dealing with the challenge of fostering conversations that are lively and impassioned, without letting them become hateful or hurtful.
At the Poynter Institute, a leading school and think tank for journalists, a May 2007 article entitled "Dialogue or Diatribe?" reports, "An Internet mob is generally ruthless, fueled by the ease and anonymity of posting. News web sites around the country are struggling to address the viciousness of commentary on stories, blogs and message boards. Some sites have turned off comments in specific areas. Many are developing mechanisms to help the online community police itself."
Interestingly, the feedback to this story about feedback was all over the lot.
One writer suggested we should just resign ourselves to the Wild West ethos of the Internet. "Comments that are negative in tone and ignorant in content are a reality that we're not going to get rid of anytime soon," he wrote, and predicted that efforts to rein in the debate "will still be a drop in the bucket in a world where cruelty to the kind has become the latest worldwide spectator sport."
Another disagreed, writing, "My paper also has an anonymous comments section, and the comments can get very ugly. I'm not sure, though we have continuing conversations in our newsroom about it, why we allow anonymous comments online when we don't allow them in the newspaper. We work so hard to build trust with our sources, and then we put them in a forum where not only do we provide stones to throw, but we hand out masks along with them."
One problem with comment threads on news sites is that a few people can hijack a conversation with dozens of posts, often filed using multiple user names. Some newspapers are responding with software that allows only one or two posts per day from a unique Internet address. This reins in the most rabid posters, and arguably might encourage people to be more thoughtful, knowing their opportunities to comment aren't unlimited. (Having only one shot at an issue, you might pause to sharpen your aim.) But this approach also chills the conversational quality of a forum as a place where people can exchange lively notes back and forth.
Many news web sites have added links that let readers suggest that particular posts be deleted. This allows the community of people engaged in a conversation to police themselves. But newspapers also report abuse of this feature, sometimes by corporate PR departments that spend hours working to delete comments critical of their companies.
Some critics of any efforts to moderate postings to newspaper websites raise the banner of free speech and even cite the First Amendment. But let's be clear: The freedom of the press in this instance applies to the owner of the publication, or more specifically, the host of the online forum. Newspapers have every right to set their terms for posts on their web sites. And, the guess here is that as they respond to situations like those this newspaper faced over the last two weeks, newspaper sites will continue to refine their policies to strike the balance they seek between civility and free-wheeling debate.
In a thoughtful interview on Assignment Zero, a website devoted to collaborative, participatory journalism, Debbie Kornmiller, reader advocate for the Arizona Star, is unapologetic about the rules her newspaper imposes for those who post comments online. "We tell readers that this is our house," she says, "and when you come to someone's house there are standards, whether being polite or kind. We set the standards because it is our house. And if you don't like the rules of our house, go to someone else's house, or create your own house, but this is what you need in order to live in our house."
For all the difficulties newspapers are having with online comments, it's way too early to pull the plug. Forums for quick comments may never be as thoughtful as the editorial pages - it's so easy to pound the keyboard and hit the "send" button, and the mask of anonymity does seem to bring out the worst in many people. Yet there's a clear benefit to letting readers jump in and join the conversation themselves. Lively comment forums connect readers with their newspapers and with issues in their communities, and that's a good thing.
That, at any rate, is my view. If you'd like to take issue with any of this, I'll see you online!