Wisdom of the crowds: Create the ideal newspaper comment board rules

April 23rd, 2009

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about the need for journalists and bloggers to be active participants on their own comment boards.

If you were going to create the ideal set of rules for a newspaper comment board, something that your readers — hopefully — would abide by, what would you include? We’re talking about story-level comments, blog comments and forum remarks.


How would you enforce the rules?
Where would you post them?

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Entry Filed under: blogging,comments,Polls

  • http://oldmedianewtricks.com Robert Quigley

    Reader comments on newspaper sites are tough to deal with. Blogs, such as this one, generally don't face the same problems as sitewide commenting on a general news site because readers who are here are generally interested in the topics we post about. Newspaper readers parachute in on stories, likely have no relationship with the author of the story and perhaps not even that much of an interest in the topic. That lack of emotional involvement, combined with anonymity, can lead to some ugly comments.

    This is posted at the top of all comment sections, in plain sight, at the Statesman:

    Austinites love to be heard, and we're giving you a bullhorn. We just ask that you keep things civil. Leave out the personal attacks. Do not use profanity, ethnic or racial slurs, or take shots at anyone's sexual orientation or religion. If you can't be nice, we reserve the right to remove your material and ban users who violate our visitor's agreement.

    The “visitor's agreement” part is linked to a much longer legal memo.

    As for enforcing those rules, I think you need a few things:

    1. Good tools. I like the ability to punish users without banning them. Also, having the ability to block by various methods would help (IP, confirmed e-mail, user name, etc.)

    2. Authenticated users. We still allow anonymous comments on our sites, but I'm starting to believe we need people to be held accountable for their posts.

    3. Staff resources. You need to have several people focused on responding to abuse reports. It can overwhelm people. No good answer here except you need a lot of people watching the shop. And that staff needs to make sure they consistently moderate based on the stated rules. Consistency is really important here.

    Can't wait to hear what other say..

  • http://socialmediaexplorer.com JasonFalls

    The main problem with newspaper comment sections, and thus the general public's fear of “blogs” and forums, etc., are that they allow anonymous user posts. Make people stand behind what they say with a name and an email address (yeah, some people will still fake it, but it'll weed out the gutless wonders) and civility returns. And don't give me your freedom of speech bullshit. You aren't supporting free speech by allowing people to speak anonymously. You're allowing them to be assholes.

    That's the only policy newspaper comments sections really need, in my opinion.

  • http://www.chrissniderdesign.com Chris Snider

    How do you “make” people use a real name and email address? Credit card verification? Have them come down to the office and fill out a form in person?

  • http://oldmedianewtricks.com dan360man

    Amen, brother.

    Here's a question for the rest of you: Would you be more/less likely to comment on a story if you couldn't be anonymous?

  • http://www.technicalbent.com Christian McDonald

    I agree that anonymous comments definitely bring out the worst in folks. We've had a lot of discussions around here about Facebook Connect … wondering if we required commenters to be registrants of Facebook (and/or other more mainstream social network sites) if they would play ball better … that they might protect their online Facebook persona more and not shoot off opinions that are inflamitory.

  • http://twitter.com/mmilian Mark Milian

    At the LA Times, we moderate every comment before its posted. We'd like every comment to maintain a certain level of intellect. But most of the time, we'll approve a comment as long as its not vulgar, obscene or a blatant attack.

  • http://socialmediaexplorer.com JasonFalls

    You can't. But look at the comments sections of most blogs that require name, email address and similar information. You don't have the automatic sink into the pit of mindless insults and let's see how many curse words I can slip through the cracks. Hold people accountable and they will be, for the most part.

  • http://www.chrissniderdesign.com Chris Snider

    Those blog sites also don't have millions of unique visitors per month and thousands of posts. I love the idea of taking away anonymous comments. Just not sure how you do it.

    The truth is that people see us as a giant megaphone that they get to take hold of. So they abuse that.

    See also: Twitter and Skittles

  • http://tvtyrant.com AmyVernon

    I think Jason's point about anonymous comments is key.

    Sure, there are people who are going to lie about their identity. But the absolute bottom feeders are less likely to go to all that trouble. And if they have to have a verifiable e-mail address to sign up, that's even one step further.

    It's all very well and nice that the LA Times moderates all comments before they're posted but the fact is that most newspapers don't have the staff anymore to do that. And if you do moderate comments, then you become liable for what's in them – and if something slips through the cracks or someone posts a libel, the news organization is at risk for an indefensible lawsuit. I also wonder, are those comments moderated overnight, or does anyone posting a comment overnight have to wait until the morning to see it go up? Just curious.

    Anonymity allows people to be venal as they ever imagined.

    Beyond that, the main issue lies on the side of the news organizations.

    If you're going to allow comments on stories, which at this point you simply must, then you need to have the resources to deal with complaints about them. You have to have at least a couple of people around the clock who can delete comments, block users, etc.

    And the reporters and editors simply MUST understand that they have to get involved, too. If someone's being attacked, they need to bring that to the attention of the appropriate editor, rather than just complaining about it. And if a reader is seeking help understanding something, and the reporter/editor knows the answer, freakin' answer it. But politely.

  • http://oldmedianewtricks.com Robert Quigley

    I'd love to know how much staff time that takes. Or does the LAT contract out commenting?

  • http://www.manjamedia.com Mandy Jenkins

    Like the Statesman, we use Pluck for our story comments at the Cincinnati Enquirer. We have a set of “discussion guidelines” that are pretty similar to that of other papers: http://news.cincinnati.com/rules. The only rule we don't have – mostly because it is so hard to define – is against trolling. Man, what community manager doesn't hate trolls?

    We do the after-the-fact moderation Pluck was designed to maintain using abuse reports. We have a staff of editors, copyeditors, online producers and others who are assigned to look in on those abuse reports around the clock. Consistency is the real problem when it comes to doing this, but we try our best to make sure all moderators follow our discussion rules when it comes to removing comments.

    I'd give my right arm for an ability to block by IP address, but so far we don't have that ability. We're looking into Facebook Connect for our site's interactions in the future – which I'd like to think would calm things down a bit.

  • http://oldmedianewtricks.com Robert Quigley

    Mandy, I'm with you. There are ways to get around an IP block, but it would be nice to at least make it *that* much more difficult for those trolls.

    I think anonymous comments on big news sites will be a thing of the past at some point. They suck up too much staff time, which is something we don't have the luxury of anymore.

  • http://www.tucsoncitizen.com Dylan Smith

    AmyVernon said:

    “And if you do moderate comments, then you become liable for what's in them – and if something slips through the cracks or someone posts a libel, the news organization is at risk for an indefensible lawsuit.”

    This belief is widespread, but unfounded – Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act offers immunity for online publishers.


    At our site, we require commentors to register, but they can choose their usernames – a step that's halfway between anonymous and requiring a “true identity.”

  • http://www.solidboss.com/ solidboss

    I have been looking for this type of information. I shall be pleased to become a regular visitor

  • scott12345

    For those individuals who are still unfamiliar with blogging, it is a home page on the Internet that takes a form of a personal journal. All the entries in the blog are compiled chronologically which contains comments and thoughts on everything; in other words, your point of view about different topic.
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  • Lothar

    Require everyone to give their full name, address, and an oath that they will receive a punch in the face from me in the middle of the town square every time they post something I don't like.


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