Racism, Attacks Lead News Sites to Disable Story Comments

It took years for most news organizations to allow users to comment on news stories, even after blogs and message boards saw how they engaged users and fostered constructive conversations. Now some news organizations are disabling the commenting function on some or all stories and other news content.

The problem for many news orgs is that comment ghettos, where banality and obscenity rule, have arisen on their sites. Journalists rightly ask, “What’s the point?” Even after trying to moderate and cultivate comments, many news orgs have decided to keep some stories off-limits.

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Stories that elicit hateful and racist speech — those dealing with immigrants, homosexuality and crime, particularly sexual assault — are the first to go. “What makes crime comment threads go sour?” Publish2′s Ryan Sholin asked on Twitter, and then answered: “Racism, hate, dislike of the police, and racism, I’d say. Also, racism.”

Some news organizations have set up formal policies to delineate which stories users can comment on. Others operate on loose guidelines or deal with stories case-by-case.

Earlier this week, an editor for the Star Tribune in Minneapolis told MinnPost that the news site doesn’t allow comments on stories involving:

  • Crime
  • Muslims
  • Fatalities/suicides
  • Gays
  • Distressed local companies
  • Racially sensitive issues
  • Local homes
  • C.J. (a local entertainment columnist)

When I followed up via e-mail with Terry Sauer, assistant managing editor for digital at the Star Tribune, he said that such stories received too much trolling and hateful and racist statements. Sauer told MinnPost blogger David Brauer, however, that the Star Tribune turns off comments on less than 10 percent of stories.

Curious to see how other news organizations are handling this, I sent out some inquiries on Twitter and e-mail. John Robinson, editor of the News & Record in Greensboro, N.C., said his paper decides on comments on a case-by-case basis, though editors do follow some guidelines. In a note on his blog Robinson said:

“In our continuing effort to raise the discussion in the comments area — or at least keep it from dropping lower — we are enabling comments on fewer stories. More specifically, we are not enabling comments on stories that tend to bring in the most offensive, inappropriate and starkly off-topic comments. We’re talking crime stories, stories about immigration, and almost anything about race and sex.”

Robinson said, however, that the News & Record would allow comments on some crime and race stories but that editors will “watch them more closely.”

Commenting can be a valuable part of a news site. On an beatblog like Jon Ortiz’s The State Worker, you’ll notice that there are a lot of repeat commenters and their posts are usually constructive and on-topic. A community has formed around Ortiz’s beat.

But many beats — crime, for example — do not lend themselves well to communities. On the crime beat, the actors are constantly changing. The people who make it into those stories are accused of unsavory acts. It’s much easier to keep comments clean on education stories, for example, because the actors — teachers, administrators, parents, students — and commenters are more constant.

Melissa Coulter, community editor of the Quad-City Times in Davenport, Iowa, and Brianne Pruitt, Web editor at The Wenatchee World in Washington, both said on Twitter that their news sites do not allow comments on sexual assault stories because of the risk of someone posting the victim’s name.

Pruitt said her site deals with comments on a case-by-case basis. Editors may disable commenting if a victim of a sex crime could be identified or if a story could attract racist remarks. (The community has a large migrant worker population.) But they’ve taken that action only twice since March.

Stephanie Romanski, Web editor of The Grand Island Independent‘s site, said on Twitter that her news org removed all commenting from the site and now has a “tweet this” link that enables users to take the discourse to Twitter. In a blog post in May, she explained why her news org decided to turn off commenting:

“We are also sending away the headaches that go with it and the drivel that can sometimes negate the integrity of the journalism. The latter is something our publisher has always pointed out regarding comments — the ones who post rumors, the ones who post incorrect facts, the ones who tread the fine line between personal attack and playing by the rules — those kinds of comments, he feels, can drag down a story and therefore our reputation.”

Romanski said on Twitter, however, that she is working on a way to bring comments back with a new policy.

Not everyone, however, agrees with limiting comments even on controversial stories. Mathew Ingram, communities editor at The Globe and Mail in Toronto, said in an e-mail that his paper usually only closes comments on stories involving legal issues around contempt of court or libel. Ingram believes that a lot of important discourse is lost by limiting comments to only uncontroversial stories.

“This would result in the paper only having comments open on stories that were so uninteresting or uncontroversial that no one would care about them,” Ingram said. “This is a point I keep making when I have the same discussions here at the Globe about closing comments on stories. If we’re not letting people comment about important (and controversial) issues, then why are we bothering?”

Before Ingram took his current job as communities editor, The Globe and Mail was more restrictive on the subject. Comments weren’t allowed on stories about the Middle East, women and homosexuality. Now The Globe and Mail‘s strategy is to keep comments open until they start to turn negative. If they do, an editor posts a warning message stating that comments may be closed if readers don’t behave. Only if that fails will comments be closed on a story.

CLARIFICATION: This story has been changed to clarify the circumstances in which The Wenatchee World disables comments on its site and to indicate that it happens rarely.

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