How to handle comments — and how not to

A New Haven alderman and his wife were involved in a shoving match at their home shortly before 2 a.m. this past Saturday, according to police. The incident serves as a textbook illustration of how to handle reader comments — and how not to.

The alderman, Darnell Goldson, is African-American, a fiscal conservative and a high-profile critic of Mayor John DeStefano. The city’s daily newspaper, the New Haven Register, and a nonprofit news site, the New Haven Independent, published brief stories on the altercation. The Register allows anyone to post comments immediately, though offensive ones can be removed if someone complains, or if someone on the Register’s staff catches it. The Independent screens all comments before posting.

Over the past year I’ve interviewed a number of folks in the city’s large African-American community. Invariably, the Register’s comments policy is near the top of their list in complaints about the Register. The Independent doesn’t necessarily get perfect scores on that front. But because blatantly racist comments are not allowed at the Independent in the first place, black readers generally give the Independent high marks for trying to encourage a civil conversation.

Here are some of the dicier comments you’ll find about the Goldsons at the Register right now — some racially charged, some just in incredibly poor taste:

Probably a drug related incident !

Pretty rough neighbor hood. ”

Obviously a personal matter that was fueled by something egregious.

Common sense would dictate some type of marital discord that involves “whoopee”, “friends with benefits” or a series of one-night-stands.

No big deal as this type of behavior is quite common in Ward 30

Hmm,I wonder…Would you all be so quick to rush to bury this man if instead of “Darnell”, his name happened to be “Daniel”,”Christopher”, or some other, more caucasian name?Racism pervades so many comments made on this page that it makes me sick.If you are a racist loser, come right out and say it, don’t dance around the subject by negatively commenting every time someone with a name like “Jamal, Tyshawn, or Darnell” is referenced in an article!

Its because the ones with the names like Jamal, Darnell, Tyshawn, LaKeisha, Tyreeka, etc are the ones we hear about causing most of the trouble and committing most of the crimes in the area.

Call it racist if you want, but the bad citizens in your community are the ones giving black people a bad name. The rest of us normal citizens who do work and who do stay out of trouble are just really sick of hearing black people cry racism when there are so many of you causing your own problems.

Cheer up everybody, the makeup sex is going to be incredible!

Please understand that I’m not saying the Register condones such comments. Its commenting policy says, “We ask that you be polite. Offensive comments will be removed and repeated offensive comments could lead to being banned from commenting. In no way do the comments represent the view of nhregister.com.” And based on what I’ve seen in the past, I expect some or all of these comments will be gone before long.

But by not taking responsibility for comments before posting, the Register opens itself up to charges of offensiveness and of insensitivity to the black community.

By contrast, the Independent’s policy begins: “Yes we do censor reader comments. We’ll continue to.” And if you look at the comments appended to the bottom of the Independent’s story, you won’t find anything remotely like what I’ve quoted above.

This has nothing to do with free speech. It’s about brand, reputation and journalistic standards. It’s also about whether you think of comments as a way to build community, or simply as a tactic to drive up page views.

No responsible editor would allow ordinary people to be quoted making such remarks, especially anonymously. Nor would an editor publish such garbage as a letter to the editor. Why should comments be any different?

18 thoughts on “How to handle comments — and how not to

  1. Mike Benedict

    Great column, Dan. This really is one of the frustrating sidebars to online journalism. The Boston North Shore newspapers (Salem, Newburyport, Gloucester, Lawrence, etc.) are a classic example of how racially tinged and nasty comments can be, particularly in smaller communities. And from my unscientific observations, this practice is subtly encouraged by the publishers, provided the comments reflect the opinions of the respective paper’s editorial board. It’s really out of hand, and in the long term detrimental to generating overall traffic and community involvement because over time the sane leave the shouting to the crazies.

  2. Reggie Giguere

    I have never understood why anyone finds it necessary to verbally “attack” another person with slurs, vulgarities &/or other inunendos based on one’s race, creed, religion & etc…

    The definition of “civil discourse” means people can agree, disagree or agree to disagree with the issues &/or circumstances at hand. Engaging in such “gutter” comments lends absolutely nothing to the dialogue. It only serves to validate one’s ignorance.

    The United States has come a long way towards equality for all. To resort to such unnecessary & useless degradation however, only demonstrates just how far we have yet to travel.

  3. Chris Matthews

    Something that I really appreciate about this site, Dan, is that you require real names. If my local papers require a name and phone number for a letter to the editor, they should do the same for comments online. I’ve seen some nasty stuff (and political astroturf) on the local comment sections that would likely not have been posted if the user couldn’t hide behind a username. Do you know of any newspaper sites that require a real name or is the idea a non-starter? With all due respect to Publius, of course!

    1. Dan Kennedy

      @Chris: The Salem News started requiring real names earlier this year. and I guess that applies to all the Eagle-Tribune papers. The Batavian (online only) is a community site that requires real names. You can have a civil conversation without real names, but you have to moderate the hell out of it. (After posting this comment, I was reliably informed that the Salem News’ real-names policy does not apply to all E-T papers. A quick visit to a story on the Eagle-Tribune’s website confirms that.

  4. Paul Bass

    At least in a city like New Haven, you can have a civil conversation WITH real names — but you can’t have much of a conversation. Not about school reform. Not about the police. Not about much that matter. Because people lose their jobs if they exercise free speech and speak publicly by name. We’ve found that our comments section at the Independent is the only place in town right now where public school teachers, for instance, can describe the impact of reform experiments in their classrooms and schools.

  5. These comments are fairly mild compared to others I’ve read. Check out the Fall River Herald News’ comments section sometime – how they manage to not get sued is beyond me …

    1. Dan Kennedy

      @Don: Federal law immunizes website operators from being sued for anything their commenters write. They are legally responsible only for content they generate.

  6. Jack Sullivan

    This is merely a technological derivative of the old “Speak Out,” “Your Voice” or some such alternative that many community and small daily newspapers used to run where readers would anonymously leave opinions on answering machines and they would be transcribed and run in columns on the oped pages. Cheap and easy space fillers but eventually editors realized the legal issues they left themselves open to. What I don’t understand is how they see this differently? Now, it’s not only anonymous, attacking and, in most instances, offensive, it’a memorialized in perpetuity. Any local story about a ne’er-do-well inevitably has unsubstantiated allegations by locals who swear they know the family. Your change didn’t make me stop commenting but it did require me to be more circumspect in what I said and made me accountable to the likes of Mike if I want to get into a crapfight.

    1. Dan Kennedy

      @Jack: As I said in response to @Don, one thing that changed is that news-site operators are not legally liable for the comments that appear on their sites.

  7. Dan Hamilton

    @ Paul: If that is true (and as a retired editor I’m a little skeptical), that without anonymity these issues would not be aired, then apply long-standing, tested journalism principles to decide when to grant anonymity — as an exception, not the rule.

    Of course that costs time & money and there you have the short answer to why most newspapers’ online comment pages are cesspools.

    -dan

  8. Moderating comments can be very time-consuming and I imagine, at a time when news staffs are getting cut, that most papers just don’t want to either throw that duty at someone who is already overworked or don’t want to hire someone just to wade through the muck.

    I’ve had days where I’ve had new comments come in every five minutes (everyone has an opinion when a Level 3 sex offender is making restaurant deliveries). I can’t imagine how fast the comments must fly at sites with higher traffic.

    One advantage to running a site for a small town: no one really realizes, until I indicate otherwise, that I can easily figure out who is posting what. Chances are, if someone is misbehaving online, I can tell that person to knock it off — and they’re so freaked out that I know their secret identity, they behave.

    Whenever I haven’t posted a comment, I get a variant of “you’re imposing on my First Amendment right to free speech!” I tell them they have the right to say it to me, but not the right to force me to publish it!

  9. Mike Benedict

    @Jenn: Here’s the thing: Instead of waiting for the bad behavior, and then pouncing, would it not be less time-consuming to force writers to behave from the get-go? Just require real names (and a telephone number) prior to authorizing a screen name.

    1. Dan Kennedy

      I’ve brought this up before, but here’s Howard Owens, publisher and editor of the Batavian, on why he requires registration and real names. Though I concluded that a real-names policy was right for Media Nation, I think it can work either way as long as comments are taken seriously rather than regarded as an afterthought.

  10. I have been a subscriber to your site for a while now and enjoy the opinions although I never comment. Not because of the real name policy but because the first comment by Howard Owens, in your comment policy section, states that it is a site for “media professionals” of which I am not. I also notice that this commenting issue comes up every now and then as if you’re trying to push the concept of real name commenting on all media outlets. I’m not sure there’s a right answer. As someone who tries to make intelligent, fact based comments, I can tell you that there is nothing more frustrating than being called an idiot simply because you have a dissenting view. Hot button topics usually bring the most colorful comments. Imagine the names used when someone with a name like Keith Stanley Ramon Spain defends the issuance of drivers licenses to illegal immigrants. I used to think it equated to a lack of education, but I’ve been called an idiot by professors and politicians too. On sites like this it makes sense to cut out the garbage comments by requesting real names. It makes for fewer comments, and therefore more manageability. If local news sites do that however, they will eliminate comments altogether. My hometown paper still publishes a Speak Out section every week. I bristle when I read some of mean spirited, anonymous comments that the media professionals choose to put in print in order to sell their paper. And how about that Rupert Murdoch guy? Now there’s journalistic standards. What it really amounts to is how professional you choose to be and what you think it’s worth.

    1. Dan Kennedy

      @StanleyRamon: This site is most definitely not for media professionals only, and I hope you will keep commenting. Very few regular commenters here are media professionals.

  11. Henry Hamilton

    But no one has posed the question of what is a real name? Is the internet persona under that name as valid as the name itself?

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