Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Here's something to comment on

I work every day in two mediums – print and online.

Print is as old and familiar as my favorite tweed sportscoat. On the other hand, online is the new kid on the block. But it is where I spend more and more time each day.

Print has a sense of permanence, online is more fleeting.

That’s because material that we publish in print, as I remind reporters every day, is forever.

On the other hand, online is more of an evolution. Material we post online can change, we can develop it, add new information, new details.

We publish the print edition once each day. We can publish online every minute. We are in the process of transforming ourselves into a 24-hour news operations.

That’s one of the things I love about working online. It gives us the ability to deliver news to readers immediately, then update it constantly. Sometimes that means correcting information as it changes.

I don’t have that luxury in print. We get one shot to get it right. As much as we strive to do just that, we sometimes fall short. That’s why we run corrections.

There is another crucial difference between our print edition and our online website, one that I also am learning has its pitfalls.

Our website is much more of an interactive animal. We are engaging the readers, asking them to literally take part in our new “news ecology.”

A big part of that is the ability for readers to post comments on most of the stories we “publish” online.

That, as I am sadly learning, is not always a good thing.

Let me put it a little more plainly: Does every story boil down to race.
Black vs. white? Minority vs. Majority? Or is that merely a mirage created by the convenience of anonymous posters who feel emboldened to make statements they would never dare make if their name appeared beside them.

I don’t get that kind of convenient cover. Every day I write this blog and my name appears on the byline. On Mondays I do likewise with my print column. The same goes for all our reporters. Our editorial board, of which I am a member, stands behind the stance of the paper. It is clearly labeled as opinion and stands apart from our news coverage.

But those lines are becoming increasingly blurred online.

Here are the basic ground rules for posting on stories that appear on our website. We ask for commenters to register, but what they say is done so – at least as far as the public can see – anonymously.

Once they register, what they post appears immediately on the site. That is a powerful medium. I can tell you that because part of what I do here each day increasingly is trying to keep tabs on those comments. I delete a lot of what I see. Readers also have the ability to notify us via e-mail if they find a comment objectionable. We then review the material and make a decision. Some complaints are justified. Others are simply someone who disagrees with what someone says. That does not warrant us taking action.

If someone persists in posting objectionable material, we can “ban” them from making comments. Often that simply results in them re-registering from another e-mail address.

As you might guess, an overwhelming majority of the objectionable comments online boils down to basic racism.

If you think this country has come a long way when it comes to dealing with matters of race, come into my office someday and listen to the unedited Sound Off tapes that we whittle down to what appears in print each day. Online comments might be considered Sound Off on steroids.
There are those – including some on my own staff - who firmly believe we have no business offering that kind of anonymous platform to readers.

One thing should be made clear: The comments that appear on stories that run on our website are not the opinion of our reporters, nor the position of the paper.

That doesn’t change the fact that we are hosting this forum. For that reason, I believe we are responsible for that content.

We covered a vigil in Chester Tuesday night for the latest victim of street violence in Chester. Many residents made it clear they had problems with our coverage. What we found out was that it was not so much our coverage of the incident, but rather the comments that appeared under the story.

A review of them quickly confirmed why. It was right there in black and white. Literally.

That is why on the story that appears on the site today concerning last night’s vigil, we have disabled the comments capability.

It’s not something I like to do. I get accused of censorship all the time when I delete objectionable comments. I can only guess how this move is going to be received.

It also runs contrary to the spirit of the Internet, which is so free-flowing and based on a constant give-and-take.

Of course, we have the ability to make still another change. We can review every comment before it is posted on the site. I’m not sure we have the manpower to undertake that kind of effort given the surging popularity of our website, especially the comments posted on it.

It is something I will continue to wrestle with every day, and with every story that appears online.

For now, I will mimic the words of Rodney King: “Can’t we all just get along.”

I think I know the answer. At least where it concerns the online portion of my job.

Reality bytes. So do racist, hurtful comments.

1 Comments:

Anonymous Brian said...

Bryan Lentz's sleazy tactics with circulating nominating petitions on
behalf of a "wing nut" in order to
split the republican vote in the 7th Congressional District. The
Philadelphia Inquirer reporters say
that Bryan Lentz has not denied the dirty political tricks. This is from I
guy I used to prosecute criminal cases
with when he was an Assistant District Attorney and I was a police
detective who now wants to be my
Congressional representative. In the era of the congressional "corn husker
kick back" to pass Obama
care, "$90,000 in cash in the freezer Jefferson", do we really need to
elect another ethically challenged
politician to congress. I am ashamed to say that I used to work with this
guy.

August 5, 2010 at 10:00 PM 

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