April 12, 2012

A Huffington Post story about George Zimmerman’s second-degree murder charge had generated more than 15,000 comments by Wednesday evening. By noon today, the story had more than 25,000 comments.

Editors at smaller news organizations say their sites and social media platforms have also been inundated with comments.

“It’s a difficult thing to manage, in part because the volume of the comments is so extreme,” said Miami Herald Managing Editor Rick Hirsch. “It’s almost like a Twitter feed.”

Hirsch and other journalists I talked to all agree that people want to talk about the Trayvon Martin story and that news sites should provide forums for this conversation. But they have different thoughts on how to moderate the conversation, and have taken a variety of approaches.

Moderating all comments to keep the conversation focused

Trayvon Martin’s mother Sybrina Fulton, center, closes her eyes as the family attorney Benjamin Crump rests his head against her shoulder, next to her son Jahvaris Fulton, left, during a news conference about the arrest of George Zimmerman for the killing of Trayvon Martin, at the Washington Convention Center in Washington, on Wednesday, April 11, 2012. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

The Huffington Post relies on a combination of an algorithm and staffers to moderate its comments. All comments are pre-approved before they appear on the site and are posted only if they meet the Huffington Post’s commenting guidelines.

“Our community is very good at flagging,” Community Manager Justin Isaf said by phone. “We do definitely pull things down that are problematic.”

Readers who have flagged a lot of inappropriate comments that the moderation team ends up deleting are given “community moderator badges.” When readers with this badge flag a comment, the moderation team gives the flagged comment priority review. (Isaf wouldn’t say how many staff and reader moderators there are altogether.)

One of the moderator team’s main jobs is to make sure that a vocal minority aren’t dominating the conversation. They’ve had to watch for these types of comments on the Trayvon Martin stories, which have generated some offensive and generalized remarks about race and gun control, Isaf said.

“People will argue until everyone else leaves and they think they won the conversation, but really, everyone’s just tired of the same exact thing and not being able to move the debate forward. We try to stop that from happening before it happens,” Isaf said. “It’s about making sure that people who want a real debate can have that discussion rather than having someone come in and hit them over the head with caps lock.”

The Huffington Post also looks to see what people are saying on Twitter and Facebook, where the conversations sometimes differ from those in the comments section.

“We don’t see things that are as bad on Facebook as we do on the site,” Isaf said. “Real name identities really cut down on that.”

Relying on readers to flag offensive, inappropriate comments

The Miami Herald’s Hirsch said it’s been difficult to moderate comments on the site’s Trayvon Martin stories because of the sheer volume. The Herald has published numerous stories about Martin, who is from Miami.

MiamiHerald.com doesn’t have a designated staff of moderators, but instead tries to make it a shared responsibility among editors, producers, reporters and readers. The site’s online producers are asked to monitor comments on active stories. They get emails whenever readers have flagged an inappropriate comment and then look to see whether the comment has violated the site’s guidelines.

“Reporters and editors here are very much in the habit of looking at what’s being said in the stories they’re involved with,” Hirsch said by phone. “Some stories have gotten 4,000 or 5,000 comments. I don’t think any one person can read all of those.”

It would be easy to just turn off comments and not have to worry about moderating them. But that’s not an option that many news sites have been willing to take with this story.

“I’m reluctant to opt for the nuclear option, which is just to shut off comments,” Hirsch said. “There are times when we’ve done that on some stories, but I think that’s always a last resort.”

Even the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, which typically shuts off comments on stories that address racial issues, has allowed comments on all Trayvon Martin stories. Terry Sauer, assistant managing editor/digital, said the Tribune has a dozen staffers who moderate comments in shifts. “The discussion on our site on the Trayvon Martin case has been very active, but remarkably civil,” he said.

Rewarding readers for contributing thoughtful comments

The Orlando Sentinel has been trying to engage with readers who post civil comments. The Sentinel’s story about the charges against Zimmerman has about 400 comments so far.

“It’s not unusual for stories related to [Trayvon Martin] to generate hundreds of comments from readers,” said Mike Lafferty, the Sentinel’s opinions editor. “We’ve also seen a sharp uptick in comments on our Orlando Sentinel Facebook page for posts related to that case. We saw a similar reaction Wednesday night after we started posting news of the special prosecutor’s press conference in Jacksonville.”

Rather than turn off comments on Trayvon Martin stories, Lafferty said the site is trying to pay closer attention to the comments to ensure that readers comply with the site’s commenting guidelines. Throughout the day, various Sentinel staffers monitor comments and check on the ones that readers flag.

“If a comment is found to be in violation we unpublish it and send the violator a message that includes a reminder about our terms of service and our right to stop that person from further commenting,” Lafferty said via email. “In an ideal world we might try to ask someone to modify their comments but that’s a very time-consuming proposition. Instead we remind them of our rules and ask that they abide by them.”

The Sentinel has had to remove comments that violate the site’s guidelines, but not as many as you might expect, Lafferty said. “While some try to skirt the edges of the rules, people seem genuinely interested in talking about the broader issues the case has raised, issues that involve race relations, gun laws, self-defense and equality of justice. We’ve not yet closed any of those stories to comments.”

The site’s social media coordinator has been monitoring the conversation on Facebook and Twitter to let the site’s followers know that someone’s listening. Lafferty said he’s also made it a practice to enter the conversation — sometimes by clarifying a point, providing supplemental information, or thanking someone for commenting.

Outsourcing comment moderation, leaving social media conversation take its course

NPR.org outsources its comment moderation to a company called ICUC. Kate Myers, NPR.org’s product manager for social media, typically gets a several questions per week from the company about how to handle specific comments, but said she doesn’t recall getting questions about comments on Trayvon Martin stories.

“Nothing has come up that has caused our moderators to reach out to us specifically about the comments,” she said by phone. “We do occasionally look at some of the conversations. As a small team, we don’t have the capacity to look at all of them but we do have people emailing us directly to take a look at a particular conversation.”

The volume of comments on NPR’s Trayvon Martin stories has varied. One of the site’s stories about Zimmerman being charged with second-degree murder didn’t generate any comments in the comments section. By contrast, a blog post about the same topic generated about 325 comments by midday Thursday.

That same blog post generated more than 1,200 comments on NPR’s Facebook page, which has more than 2.3 million followers. Many of the Trayvon Martin stories NPR has posted to Facebook have generated more than 1,000 comments each.

Unlike the Orlando Sentinel, Myers said NPR.org’s social media staffers don’t typically join the discussion on Facebook.

“It’s extremely rare, partially because of how fleeting comments on Facebook are compared to comments on our stories,” she said. “We do delete some egregious spam comments on Facebook, but we usually let the community take care of itself. In a 2,500 comment thread, our comment’s going to get lost.”

Responding to emails & tweets, but not comments

Huffington Post Senior Reporter Trymaine Lee, who just won the Sidney Award for his coverage of Trayvon Martin, said he doesn’t engage with people who comment directly on stories.

“I almost feel that that’s a safe space for folks to say whatever they want to say without me chiming in. That’s just me. I think some other reporters do engage with readers in our comments section.”

Lee, who co-wrote the Huffington Post story that has generated 23,000+ comments, typically contributes to the conversation about his work via Twitter, in part because “the platform just doesn’t allow lengthy diatribes and it’s just easier to be brief and to the point.”

Lee has found that some readers want to have a more private conversation about Trayvon Martin coverage, rather than posting their comments online for everyone to see. Since he started reporting on Trayvon Martin, Lee has been deluged with emails.

“In the beginning, most were from supporters of the family. They were either calling for Zimmerman’s arrest or asking me to keep shining a light on the case. At some point there was a shift and the majority of the notes were from critics of Trayvon Martin or from racists,” Lee said via email. “The mean notes are harder to handle. For one I don’t really want to encourage unproductive dialogue with someone who is just trying to be hateful or provocative.”

The journalists I talked to said they plan to continue to monitor the conversations surrounding Trayvon Martin stories, whether they’re taking place in comments sections, on social media or via email. The Huffington Post’s Isaf said this is exactly the type of story that news sites should want people talking about on their sites.

“This is a national conversation, and just because it’s controversial doesn’t mean you should hide from it,” he said. “The more controversial it is, the more important it is to have a conversation about what the story’s addressing.”

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As managing editor of The Poynter Institute’s website, Poynter.org, I report on the media news industry, edit the site’s How To section, and moderate the…
Mallary Jean Tenore

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