By Kelly McBride
Ethics Group Leader

April Branum is used to the teasing. As a child, she was the fat kid. Now she's a big woman. Her entire life she has endured stares, jokes and rudeness.

If anyone could stand up to the withering criticism of an anonymous Internet mob, it's Branum.

But when The Orange County (Calif.) Register published a story on March 2 about the birth of her son, Walter -- a baby she did not know she was carrying until two days before his arrival -- Branum saw a whole new side of mean. Online readers were unforgiving and cruel.

"I just couldn't believe how far they went," she said. "And how wrong it was." By wrong, Branum means both morally wrong and just plain inaccurate.

Although the details of the Register's story were complete and authentic (except for one cut line that made her name into Barnum, an unfortunate but common mistake) that didn't stop the public from making up information about the woman.

One user claimed Branum was immobile, that her house was a mess because she's too fat to get up to clean it. She can walk just fine, Branum said. But it was hard to get up and clean after the C-section.

Another person claimed she ate Krispy Kremes all day, another that fast food was her every meal. Not true and not true.

One poster suggested that Branum was inherently unqualified to be a mother and that the state of California was going to take her baby away. Because she had no prenatal care, a visiting nurse checks in once a week, Branum said. The baby is healthy and thriving and the state is not trying to gain custody.

Several posters concurred that Branum was making a lot of money off her story. She is not making any money. The only donations she received were baby items, funneled through her church.

But the biggest lie of all came from a user who claimed to be April Branum. That person posted a nasty response calling the others nasty names. Other critics then used that false posting as evidence to bolster their own conclusion that because Branum is obese, she must be lazy and vulgar too.

"That's not even me," she said of the post. "How come people can use my name?"

Like I said, Branum's a pretty tough woman and all that was tolerable. But the new mother lost it when her critics turned their sites on her baby, suggesting that the child was doomed to grow into a fat, unhealthy drain on society's resources.

"That was the worst," she said. "Disrespecting an innocent little baby."

Of course Branum's case is not an isolated one. An Internet mob is generally ruthless, fueled by the ease and anonymity of posting. News Web sites around the country are struggling to address the viciousness of commentary on stories, blogs and message boards. Some sites have turned off comments in specific areas. Many are developing mechanisms to help the online community police itself.

The Orange County Register, a Freedom Communications newspaper, had allowed comments for only about six weeks when the April Branum story surfaced. Comments are a central feature of a new push toward interactivity among Freedom properties. A "remove comment" button appears next to every post, for users who find a comment objectionable. If two users click the button, the post comes down. Before the attack on Branum, it took three users to remove a post.

After the attack, editors added this note:

From the editor: We want this to be a place where people discuss and debate ideas that foster stronger communities. We built this for you. Please take care of it. Tolerate broad thinking, but take action against obscene or hateful material. Make it a credible and safe place worth preserving and sharing.

OCRegister.com editor Jeff Light has not tracked how many comments were removed from the story about Branum. The process is far from perfect.

Online users "get into many stories and flame or post nonsense," he told me in an e-mail. "We have also seen stories where an entire point of view is deleted," which is a laborious process since the entire page must reload after each click.

"I imagine there are some sore mouse muscles in a few companies' PR offices," he said.

There are better systems, Light said, including those that block the IP addresses of offensive users or delete all of a single user's posts. Light does not advocate pre-screening comments.

"The entire point of the comment tool is that users -- not us -- have a chance to frame the discussion and to set the bounds of propriety," he said. "Many people reject that notion, but I believe it is essential."

Ugly words generate a lot of attention and reaction, but there are just as many if not more examples of healthy debate and discussion, Light said.

Some journalists fear mean-spirited online mobs may hinder their ability to tell intimate stories.

Scott Martindale, the reporter who originally wrote Branum's story, was horrified to watch the online discussion deteriorate. He's been at the paper for one year. It's his first job out of college. He felt responsible for not warning her.

Many reporters at the Register are upset by the tone of the commentary, Martindale said. The tenor of the public discussions could turn away more people than it attracts.

"Our obligation is to be a forum for people to get the news," he said. "They shouldn't have to wade through attacks and bigotry and racism on our website to get the news about their community."

In the future, Martindale said he would feel obligated to warn sources about the potential critics waiting for them in the anonymous world of the Internet. A few days after the story, he called Branum to do a follow-up story and to see how she was holding up.

She told him she could take it. She told him about the radio disk jockeys from around the country who had telephoned and put her on the air. She tried to be a good sport about it.

Branum didn't have the heart to tell the kind young reporter who came to her home what she's been telling her friends: If you think you have a nice personal story to tell, don't go to the news. See, Branum's sister actually called the newspaper about baby Walter in the first place. The way she saw it, the healthy baby was a miracle, a gift from God. Branum had tried for years to get pregnant and failed. The fact that at age 40, a healthy baby could arrive seemingly out of nowhere seemed like a pretty special event.

Now April Branum wishes she had just sent all her friends an e-mail instead.
 
"I shouldn't have put it out there," she said. "I should have kept it quiet."