Public comments. They are the best and worst thing about an online newspaper.
Comments give us great feedback in the newsroom. If someone posts a question about a story online, I know something wasn’t clear in the first version. We can revise or tweak a story. We get ideas for follow up articles. We find out what people are reading.
It’s also telling about society that people will post things on an anonymous forum – or a social media site – that they will never say in person.
It really turns some people into jerks.
Tillamookheadlightherald.com has an automatic filter for profanity, but otherwise comments are automatically posted. That’s been the policy since the website launched, before I joined the paper more than a year ago. It seems only recently that the comments have become more frequent, more controversial and, well, meaner. That’s due, in part, to the quickly growing numbers of online readers and Facebook followers.
We’ve tried to provide a forum where community discussion can take place, but it’s sometimes hard to say when it’s gone too far. Most of the comments appear to be on crime stories. They are generally squabbles between two people, or on broader issues such as race and the prevalence of crime. Little has to do with the specific facts of the case. Many times one person will post something crude, only to be reprimanded by five others.
That in itself is telling, isn’t it?
But at some point censorship becomes necessary. I’ve been accused – in the same day, actually – of both overly censoring Freedom of Speech and allowing filth to be published in the newspaper’s name.
(Can I just say, for the record, that the First Amendment applies to the government’s ability to censor you or me. It has nothing to do with a privately-owned newspaper’s ability to censor. I, in fact, censor things daily. It’s basically the description of an “editor.”)
In the newsroom, we’ve had discussions about barring all website comments on stories dealing with crime. (You can’t bar comments from a Facebook post, far as we call tell.)
At the moment, we are applying that rule to sex crimes. You have not been able to comment on the David Prock and Aaron Clark cases because we were afraid the alleged victims’ names would be made public without their consent. It was worth the loss of “free speech” to protect that.
For the most part, we’ve left the other online comments alone, both on Facebook and our own site. I hope allowing comments that don’t necessarily agree with my sensibilities offers a better reflection of community sentiment.
However, I am aware of the special role a community newspaper plays. We are held to different standards. While most people might expect crass comments on Oregonlive or KATU news, they don’t expect them in their hometown paper about their neighbors and friends.
It’s suddenly quite different when the butt of online jokes is family.
I hoped (and still hope) that community decency will provide self-policing. But this experiment is evolving. News organizations across the country have taken different approaches to this issue. I’d like to know your input. Should we continue to allow comments on potentially sensitive issues? Should we disable comments on all crime stories? Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org with your thoughts.