AJR  Drop Cap
From AJR,   February/March 2009

Comments Anonymous   

Newspaper Web sites wrestle with offensive blog comments.

By Lindsay Gsell
Lindsay Gsell is an AJR editorial assistant.     

When Raleigh's News & Observer launched its first blogs in 2005, it allowed and encouraged anonymous comments.

With the open culture of the Internet, that seemed like an obvious choice, says Dan Barkin, the paper's senior online editor. "I don't know if we even gave it a huge amount of thought," he says.

That was before anonymous commenting attracted spam, profanity, harassment and unpaid advertising onto the site, creating for staff the arduous daily duty of deleting off-color comments. The blogs too often became "unsavory neighborhoods with language that offends the sensibilities of decent people. Racism, xenophobia and other ills of society, fueled by raw-emotion topics like politics and sports, sometimes infect the discourse," wrote the news organization's public editor, Ted Vaden, in a November column. "The most egregious comments often come from people whose identities are not known to The N&O."

In response to the offensive posts, the News & Observer's site in November became the latest to shift to a registration-required policy. Users' real names still don't appear on the site, but those who would add vulgar comments often won't take the time to register.

News sites must strike a delicate balance when deciding whether to allow those who comment to remain anonymous: To attract users, sites want to make it as easy as possible for people to participate, and anonymity allows users to feel less inhibited when they comment. "People say things online that they would never say face to face," says baltimoresun.com editor Matthew Baise.

At its best, the removal of inhibitions can lead to a lively but civil exchange of ideas. At its worst, it can mean profanity, and sites are loath to alienate potential community members, tarnishing their brands in the process.

"It's a matter of trying to maintain a civil public discussion in a forum where people feel comfortable going," Vaden said in an interview.

Although some sites fear that requiring registration will inhibit people from commenting, Barkin says the number of blog comments has remained steady, and has stayed robust on the site's most- visited blogs, which focus on Wake County's troubled school system and Carolina Hurricanes hockey. Blog visitors' passion for the topics makes them willing to jump through a few hoops in order to participate, he says.

Anonymity is a factor in some, but not all, inappropriate blog posts, says Anthony Moor, deputy managing editor and interactive editor at the Dallas Morning News. "I just don't know that requiring registration fixes that. Even on parts of the sites where full registration is required, we still get profanity and spam." The site requires full registration for in-article commenting and talk boards. However, users only need to provide an e-mail address and user name in order to comment on blogs.

To help reduce unsavory comments, dallasnews.com uses filters to automatically block comments that contain profanity. The site also randomly monitors comments after they've been published.

"We would prefer to have unfettered discourse on our site," Moor says. "It takes too long for comments to appear if they're queued and require approval."

Many sites lack the manpower to monitor each comment for appropriateness before it's posted. Since the N&O launched article commenting in June, about 5,700 people have posted more than 29,000 comments.

"Even if you do have the resources to monitor comments, it's a tricky thing," says David Feld, vice president of interactive media at South Carolina's Hilton Head Island Packet. "Newspapers don't want to be Big Brother; they want to encourage the free exchange of ideas. At the same time, we don't want to be simply an unruly playground where the bullies take over and make it hard for anybody new to come into the conversation."

Registration acts as a speed bump that will slow down those who want to wreak havoc on the site, Feld says. The Island Packet requires registration for in-article commenting and blog commenting, and as a result has seen a decrease in inappropriate posts. Despite this advantage, he acknowledges users may be turned off by sharing personal information. "There's no question it cuts back the number of comments. The question is whether it encourages the quality of comments we're looking for."

Baise believes the Sun's policy of requiring only a valid e-mail address and user name is enough to deter some from commenting. The site does not require the user's real identity, but encourages users to provide a pseudonym. "People can be protective of their identity, and that extends online, even if you're not using your real name," Baise says. "If you've developed a name around an avatar, people will be more thoughtful about what they say after they've built up that reputation."

"The majority of readers are thought-ful and interested," he says. "When you really sit down and look at it, it's a tiny vocal minority of users that causes 95 percent of the problems with appropriateness on the site."

Baise thinks this minimal registration can discourage, if not eliminate, troublemakers on blogs and talk forums. "There is a certain amount of bad behavior you learn to live with, but if you force registration, you can contain that handful of trolls and make the site that much better."

Lindsay Gsell

Gsell (lgsell@ajr.umd.edu) is an AJR editorial assistant.