Shanghai: Five years ago, at a journalism-ethics conference at Kent State University, Doug Oplinger, Beacon Journal managing editor, asked the keynote speaker what editors could do to better police the comments people post on news stories.
The speaker, press critic Jay Rosen of New York University, gave him an unsatisfying answer.
“You’re not a god,” Rosen told my friend and former colleague. “You’re not the gods of discourse.” He said the comments, like other online interactions, are part of an open system — and that publishers should stop expecting browsers to do as they’re told.
I thought of that again when word broke last week that Summit County’s Board of Elections fired a worker who had been posting political comments anonymously on Ohio.com.
As a former editor in the Beacon Journal newsroom, my job once included pinging racist, libelous, threatening or otherwise out-of-bounds comments. (A filter took care of all but the most creative profanity.)
In the elections board case, an employee using the screen name “DeathByAkron” wrote — on a story about a murder acquittal — that the judge and prosecutor would “hopefully be the victims of this guy next.’’
Acting on the judge’s complaint, authorities subpoenaed the Beacon Journal and comment-system vendor Disqus.com to unmask the writer. They obliged, and on May 6 the employee was fired for “bringing embarrassment to the board.”
“Embarrassment” is the right word for the brief history of story commenting, starting around 2005 and 2006 when many news sites, including Ohio.com, essentially provided readers a simple place to blog responses.
In my research since I joined the Kent State faculty, I have found almost no editors who like what they see on their comments pages, and it’s no wonder: Comments don’t meet the same journalistic standards as the news copy, news organizations risking their sites’ credibility in exchange for dubious benefit. Moderation also claims resources that could be spent reporting something new.
What we need is a better way to do this than paying highly trained editors (and now sheriff’s deputies) to chase individual posts by trolls. Fortunately, several major players are trying a variety of strategies:
1. Personalized views. Disqus, the San Francisco vendor the Beacon Journal uses, is introducing higher-order tools that make it harder for jerks to even find an audience. Eventually an algorithm could look at such things as whom you follow, how much you post, how many responses you get and how often you offer a contrarian view to decide which of the comment streams might suit you — similar to a Pandora radio station.
2. Facebook registration. Gannett-owned sites are just over a year into requiring a Facebook ID to comment on its community and broadcast sites. It cuts way down on nonsense posts. It also scares off insiders who can’t go on the record, though a senior Gannett editor in Des Moines told me some of those comments include unverified allegations, which have to come down anyway.
3. Community moderators. The Huffington Post in 2010 began awarding “badges’’ for those who post good comments, flag bad ones or share stories on social media. The point, the site’s Frequently Asked Questions notes, is to empower well-behaved users to weed out the bad stuff themselves.
4. Sorting. A number of sites enable sorting by reader and editor ratings, though few places show this by default, instead giving “most recent’’ first. I compare it to inviting customers into a thrift store through the donation area rather than the front door.
5. Turning comments into stories. Gawker Media abandoned its “star’’ system a year ago in favor of a revamped algorithm that considers such things as textual analysis and the commenter’s history and peer group, also handing contributors the power to accept or decline a reply.
This last approach gives the commenters a little credit, suggesting that a well-crafted piece can get feedback of its own and even become more prominent than the original article.
I remember deleting plenty of comments worse than DeathByAkron’s, such as the afternoon when we posted a breaking item on a young man killed in a wreck. Within moments someone opined that he was probably speeding or drunk. None of us with the keys to the site noticed it right away, but another commenter rightfully told the first commenter off. Then another did, and then another.
Finally the deceased’s sister added her own comment, pleading that we delete it all and stop making the day worse than it already was.
I also started turning the comment feature off for routine police briefs, to avoid the predictably unhelpful discourse the regulars would have on race and crime.
Was that playing God?
When Oplinger raised his question about taming the comments, you could hear the passion in his voice to spare readers the ugliness, to show mercy.
Until the market sorts out which strategy works best, news organizations will have to express their sovereignty with imperfect tools. As Ro Gupta, the Disqus vice president of business development, told me, most of the existing solutions “still leave you in this never-ending game of Whac-a-Mole.’’
McKenney, a former Beacon Journal assigning editor, is an assistant professor of journalism at Kent State University at Stark. He is currently a visiting professor at Shanghai International Studies University in China.