washingtonpost.com
Online readers need a chance to comment, but not to abuse

By Andrew Alexander
Ombudsman
Sunday, April 4, 2010; A13

Anonymous online commenting has always been rowdy and raucous, especially when public figures are the targets.

"Excellent!" exulted a Post commenter when conservative columnist Robert Novak died in August. "Hope he suffered."

When Sen. Edward M. Kennedy died a week later, a commenter wrote: "They are going to have to bury him in a secret location to stop people from defecating on his grave."

And after The Post reported last month that the wife and daughter of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid had been badly injured when their car was hit by a tractor-trailer, a commenter applauded: "I would dearly LOVE to shake the hand of the driver of the other vehicle."

Those in public life come to expect despicable and hurtful comments. Most have developed thick hides.

But for average folks who are out of the public eye and agree to be featured in The Post, brutal online comments can be unexpected and devastating. Post reporters say increasing numbers are expressing regret they cooperated for stories that resulted in vicious anonymous attacks.

"I think it's a major issue at The Post," said reporter Ian Shapira. "We just totally throw them to the wolves" if comments aren't moderated.

Style section reporter Ellen McCarthy, who writes the Sunday "On Love" feature on couples who wed, said she spends an "inordinate amount of my time on weekends" monitoring comments. Many are so cruel they get deleted. For example, one implored a bride to take out a life insurance policy on her new husband, suggesting his obesity would soon kill him.

Several other reporters said they routinely monitor comments after their stories appear in hopes of deleting inappropriate ones before they're spotted by news sources. They can be so venomous that religion reporter William Wan sometimes warns those he has written about to avoid looking at them once the story appears.

In a few cases, those who helped with stories have said "never again." Michael J. Sutherland, who heads American Collections Enterprise in Alexandria, reluctantly agreed to cooperate for a February Post story on debt collectors. "I would never do another interview, knowing how negative the comments were," he said last week.

Readers regularly tell me The Post's online comment boards have become little more than cesspools of venom and twaddle. Many want an end to anonymous commenting, a step some Post staffers privately favor.

That's not the answer.

For every noxious comment, many more are astute and stimulating. Anonymity provides necessary protection for serious commenters whose jobs or personal circumstances preclude identifying themselves. And even belligerent anonymous comments often reflect genuine passion that should be heard.

While some readers complain they've had it with unruly online conversation, thousands have joined it. In a typical month, more than 320,000 comments are made in response to Post stories, columns and blogs. That's almost a third more than a year ago, said Hal Straus, who oversees commenting for the Web site. The growth is critical to The Post's financial survival in the inevitable shift from print to online. The goal is to dramatically build online audience, and robust commenting is key to increasing visitors to the Web site and keeping them there as long as possible.

When they register to submit comments, readers must agree not to post "inappropriate" remarks, including those that are hateful or racist, or those that advocate violence. The Post's Web site relies heavily on self-policing, where readers hit a "Report Abuse" button to flag potential violators. About 300 comments are deleted each day. But others slip through because The Post's staff of only a few monitors can't possibly scrutinize everything. So how to deal with bullies who break the rules?

The solution is in moderating -- not limiting -- comments. In a few months, The Post will implement a system that should help. It's still being developed, but Straus said the broad outlines envision commenters being assigned to different "tiers" based on their past behavior and other factors. Those with a track record of staying within the guidelines, and those providing their real names, will likely be considered "trusted commenters." Repeat violators or discourteous agitators will be grouped elsewhere or blocked outright. Comments of first-timers will be screened by a human being.

When visitors click to read story comments, only those from the "trusted" group will appear. If they want to see inflammatory or off-topic comments from "trolls," they'll need to click to access a different "tier."

I like the approach because it doesn't limit speech. Anonymous loudmouths can still shout. But "trusted commenters" will be easier to hear.

Andrew Alexander can be reached at 202-334-7582 or at ombudsman@washpost.com.

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