I participated today in a panel discussion at Loyola, sponsored by the Society of Professional Journalists. Kind of funny, given that I am not a professional journalist. The topic: “Online User Comments and its impact on news coverage, news Web sites and freedom of speech.” My fellow participants were all involved in one way or another with nola.com.
I don’t know about the audience, but I found the discussion thoroughly engaging — no credit to me, as I didn’t contribute much. It was fascinating to hear about the phenomenon of reader comments on a news site from the insider perspective. Apparently this is the hot topic in journalism right now.
The nola.commers claimed that comments which cross over a certain line and violate their terms of service are generally deleted within three to five minutes. And they have to delete lots of comments. The most provocative comments tend to be related to race/ethnicity or sexuality. They can turn off comments for any given post, and do so when commentary becomes extremely problematic. There was a lot of talk about the first amendment.
At least four people have gone to prison as a result of comments posted at nola.com. When online disputes spill over into real life, it can get ugly.
My personal blog (you’re reading it now) doesn’t have any terms of service. My readership is several orders of magnitude smaller than nola.com’s. I have no illusions about this blog as a constitutional forum. I’ll zap any comment I please. It just so happens I’m very tolerant, and in the three years I’ve been blogging I only recall deleting one comment (an insensitive remark made about Helen’s death).
Note to self: In future, don’t be shy about inquiring as to the topic and participant list, and preparing in advance for such events. If I’d had a clearer idea in my head about this forum, I think I could have prepared and been a better panelist. For example, I would have reviewed the case of Kathy Sierra. I would certainly have re-read Maitri’s post on Mainstream Media Blogs from back in May. I don’t agree with Maitri completely, but I could have at least represented her viewpoint. It would have added some spice to the discussion for sure.
That’s wild! The TP is really trying to get a grip on the whole blogger universe. They definitely feel threatened by us, yet they seem to want to embrace us, too. Nola.com has added a bunch of blog links and has been making their writers do blog entries that are often independent of their print stories. I have a friend at the TP who said he heard about Rising Tide after the fact and said he wished I would have told him about it.
And now here they are participating in a discussion panel as if they are a part of the blogsphere like all of us… crack-pipe crazy, man.
Are you just talking about the comments following news stories and blog entries or are you also talking about nola.com’s discussion forums?
Frankly, I’m shocked that anyone at NOLA.com does much thinking about that site. It’s a mess in so many ways.
A friend used to work at the site. I guess the people running it had read somewhere that websites should be dynamic. So, to make NOLA.com dynamic they insisted on rewriting the headlines every few hours.
I don’t know what to say about their claim that over the line comments get removed in 5-7 minutes. Either that’s just not true or NOLA.com’s tolerance for racist ranting is pretty high. So much of the site reads like a Klan discussion board.
And I’m not a fan of the “blogs” either. From what I can tell, they’re just posting early versions of stories. Often the print edition is longer and better edited, from what I can tell. The problem is that these versions get highlighted while the final, print version is almost impossible to find.
Newspapers are terrified of the internet. They all seem to think it will kill them. At the same time, they haven’t (with a few exceptions) thought much about how to present themselves on the internet.
The problem isn’t so much the comments themselves, it is the anonymity of the comments.
In response to a couple of the comments above: it’s worth noting that nola.com is NOT a newspaper… it’s just an online company owned by the same company that owns the newspaper. How much love is or isn’t lost between the Times-Picayune and nola.com is not for me to irresponsibly, anonymously say, but I don’t think the two entities share staff or office space.
Most newspapers’ overall online presence has zero to do with the newspapers themselves… with a couple obvious flagship exceptions, the few independent papers just do whatever their budgets allow and the vast, big-media-owned majority do whatever their overlords instruct them to.
Sorry to crassly introduce filthy lucre into the discussion, but until someone establishes an easy, efficient system for making newspapers profitable online, I think the excellence of any given newspaper’s online version– including its blogs and user communities– will be more a source of bragging rights (“look how cutting edge we are”) than a serious component of the newspaper’s larger mission…
You know, now that I’ve gotten started, I find I have a lot to say on the subject! Forgive the double comment.
Leaving aside the realities and specifics of nola.com and New Orleans for a moment, let’s give it one level of abstraction and hypothetical remove:
You have a major local website serving a community… and the online forums are filled with race anger… and the community it’s serving is filled with race anger… how much should those expressions of anger be curtailed, if they honestly reflect the community’s concerns?
I am definitely not pro-bigotry, but if the community itself is riven by barely suppressed racial rage, where is the line between propagating or encouraging it vs. letting angry individuals in the community voice their anger & thus accurately reflecting the community the site serves?
Just a pot-stirring question that occurred to me…
Well, I say let the racist comments fly. But make people stand up and be responsible for them. With a name and, if possible, with a face.
Let people’s names, faces and bigotry be seen for the whole world to judge. If the comments are going to be held in anonymity, it gives some people who would otherwise keep quiet in fear of being viewed as a racist, an open forum from which to spread their ideas to large numbers of people. Some of these people may think it’s okay to do this and be influenced by it. That’s the catch though. Only when they know they have no responsibility for their words do they begin to take their hate to a new level. Ask those same people to go on the news or get on YouTube and say the same thing and how many takers would you have? but isn’t that when a movment builds steam? when people stand up and say I am Blank and I believe BLANK?
As an example, if a man is shot, and his family reads the comments under the news story about the murder and sees people with names like BroadSt212 or W-BankRoc saying things like, “another thug gone” or “he probably killed someone last week, that’s how it works on the street” then it isn’t really much of a conversation worthy of reflection. I am sure if these posters were in a situation where they were in a room full of strangers, or even friends, perhaps they would tone down their rhetoric because they know it may be viewed with disdain and they will be judged by it. However, give them a forum in which they can be as irresponsible as they choose (after just having read some horrible news article) and then they kick it up a notch. so the forum itself is no so much a reflection of society’s ills but another cause of them.
Every now and again, out on the street, I see a woman who has a nice shape, would it be an accurate reflection of the community if I went up to her and told her? Perhaps. But why does it feel so wrong? And why has that same society deemed that it isn’t the norm? Because we have spent a few thousand years setting up a system of morals and values that should still be adhered to even in the light of a communications revolution.