Some news sites cracking down on over-the-top comments

Attention, reader comment-board trolls: News sites are getting tough on your crude, your rude and your sometimes lewd postings.

Faced with the unbounded id of anonymous readers who can’t resist posting nasty comments under online articles, some news sites are taking steps to rein in the verbal bile. And some, tired of the mess that occurs when free speech gets a little too free, are ending reader comments altogether.

Abusive comments that stray over the line into plain old hate speech have plagued news sites for almost as long as there have been news sites. Beneath an article about, say, a racially charged subject, you’ll often find a predictable outpouring of racist comments from people hiding behind phony screen names. Certain personalities, such as first lady Michelle Obama or former vice president Dick Cheney, seem to attract a disproportionate share of reader abuse.

News organizations like reader comments because they foster loyalty and interaction and because they keep readers on a site longer, a measure known as “engagement” that helps guide ad-buying decisions.

But reader comments got so out of hand, particularly on crime articles, that the Chicago Sun-Times temporarily shut down its comment boards last month. The worst comments tended to come from people who saw a Sun-Times crime article linked on the conservative Drudge Report Web site and flooded the paper’s site to offer their perspective, said Craig Newman, the Sun-Times’ managing editor. “The comments were scaring [readers] off,” he said. “People didn’t want to read the articles or dip into the comments because it was so vile.”

Popular Science magazine turned off its comments in September after product promoters and trolls — people who post deliberately inflammatory comments — “made constructive discussion impossible,” according to Digiday, a digital news site that reported on the magazine’s decision.

Some darlings of the new-media age never allowed readers to comment in the first place. For example, Vox.com, a news “explainer” site, began last month without a reader-comment feature. “We’ve watched sites open their comments, and what should be a community devolves into an endless series of flame wars,” Vox co-founder Melissa Bell wrote in a post explaining the lack of a comments feature. She declined in a series of e-mail exchanges to explain why “flame wars” might be problematic, or what Vox is planning to do as an alternative.

To tamp down the ugliness, news organizations have experimented with a variety of tactics.

The Washington Post enables readers to flag trolls through a “Report as Abusive” button that directs suspect comments to a monitoring staff for possible removal, said Bethonie Butler, the paper’s digital producer for audience development. The Post’s site also has an “Ignore” button that enables a reader to opt not to see comments from a particular user.

When things threaten to get stormy, the newspaper simply shuts off comments, as it has with articles about Michelle Obama and convicted spy Chelsea Manning and with news stories involving deaths or serious injuries, such as the Washington Navy Yard shootings in September.

Few news organizations can match the comments “curation” resources of the New York Times, which devotes 14 people, including seven full-time staffers, to screen comments on Times articles. The moderators read every comment submitted and approve or reject them based on criteria developed over the past seven years, said Sasha Koren, deputy editor of interactive news. Unlike many news sites, which open comments on dozens of articles each day, the Times limits comments to an average of 18 articles a day.

The idea, Koren said, is to “minimize incivility and elevate comments that include commentary and personal observations of some substance. . . . We’re fortunate to have a large number of articulate readers who regularly share their views, their expertise and their experiences with us and with others.”

The 30 daily newspapers owned by the McClatchy Co. have approached the problem from a different angle. Last year, 29 of the newspapers — which include the Miami Herald, Kansas City Star and Charlotte Observer — began requiring commenters to register through their Facebook accounts. (The flagship Sacramento Bee is experimenting with a different system). Now, much like traditional letters to the editor, comments come with names, hometowns and even faces and professional affiliations attached.

“The wide-open, anonymous comment was the source of a huge amount of complaints from every one of our papers,” said Anders Gyllenhaal, McClatchy’s Washington editor. But since the Facebook registration requirement began, “the worst offenders, those commenters who go from one site to the next, posting strings of over-the-top messages, largely moved on to other sites. . . . It both elevated the conversation and gave a more personal feel to the commenting.”

A similar system imposed by the Huffington Post in December proved controversial: A news article announcing the change from anonymous posting to Facebook-verified posts was met with nearly 6,000 comments — many of them taking exception in unpleasant terms. “Some people felt we were limiting their right to free speech,” said Tim McDonald, HuffPost’s director of community. The trade-off, he says, was a “significant decrease” in trolls and spam and an increase in more “civil conversations.”

The big worry, for publishers, is that taming the vox populi through such measures will reduce a site’s traffic, and hence its advertising revenue. But both McClatchy’s Gyllenhaal and HuffPost’s McDonald say that hasn’t occurred since their publications began using Facebook registration.

HuffPost, in fact, may be among the world’s most commented-upon sites. Since December, it has attracted about 6 million new comments, said McDonald, or about 2 percent of all comments it has received since it was founded in 2005.

Paul Farhi is The Washington Post's media reporter.
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