The problem with online comments

It did not take long after the story about the sad situation in Springfield hit our website than the worse part about the internet soon reared its head again.

There are many things about the online world that I am coming to love.
But there remain some things about it that I loathe. One of those is the ability of some “commenters” on our website to add their special brand of crudeness, incivility, racism and in some instances just plain hate to the conversation.

The whole idea of having the ability to comment on every story that appears on our website is to further our mission of getting our readers more engaged, at times even taking part in the news process.

But it’s become clear to me that our current method of posting comments needs to be refined.

So here is your opportunity. Tell me how you think we should handle them.

Currently we require those who wish to comment to register, but in effect most of the commenters are provided the cloak of anonymity. They give us their e-mail address, the IP and a name they wish to appear with their comments. For all intent and purpose, their identity is unknown, at least to the general public.

That leads to problems. Specifically, it often gives people the online equivalent of “beer muscles.” Without their name being affixed to their beliefs, people are willing to say things they would never utter if they knew their name was going to be there for all to see.

In addition, the comments also are not reviewed before they appear on the site. If people object to something that appears in the comments, they can notify us via e-mail. We also review comments throughout the day and remove objectionable material.

But the fact is that a lot of comments that have no business being displayed in fact do wind up on our website, at least for awhile. They add little or nothing to the conversation. They do often throw gasoline on an already volatile mix. And sometimes they simply hurt. While we make it clear we are not responsible for the content posted in these forums, it doesn’t change the fact that we are hosting it on our site.

In recent weeks several stories have sparked objectionable comments.
Just about any crime story out of Chester will bring the racists out of the woodwork, condemning an entire race for the actions of a few. It’s as if no white people have ever committed a crime.

A story from Upper Darby on Friday on a shotgun shooting sparked an avalanche of ugly comments.

Then there’s the story of Strath Haven High School girls lacrosse coach Jan Duckenfield. The school board did not renew her contract to coach the team, which for the first time ever shared the Central League title last year. The story sparked strong reaction in the community, and likewise strong reactions on our website. Comments were posted both in favor and against the coach. But it didn’t take long for her enemies to turn the conversation into a personal attack on Duckenfield. I actually had several conversations with Duckenfield about the comments.
Eventually I decided to disable the ability of readers to comment on the story.

That is one option that I have. It is not one I want to use routinely.

At the same time, I am convinced we need a new way of dealing with comments. Right now I am considering reviewing all comments before they appear on the site. It is something of a Herculean task. The popularity of our site means the number of comments also has exploded.

I don’t want to cut off that outlet to readers. I also don’t want to stamp out the spontaneity of being able to post comments in real time.
It goes against the spirit of the Internet.

But I no longer want to be part of offering a forum for cowards who use the cloak of anonymity to post their hate-filled, ugly, demeaning commentaries.

Do you agree or disagree? Join the conversation. Post a comment on this blog and let me know how you would handle this situation.

Your thoughts will be shared with the editors of the newspaper as we determine a new policy for commenting online.

It might be the last time you can do so without that material being scrutinized before it goes out there for the world to see.


Manalive said…
Because day-in and day-out the DT features lurid stories of crime and perversion, your fastidiousness about bloggers' comments seems off-target.
I think you've been startled by the ferocity of opposition to your Sestak and Lentz puff-pieces, and now you think censorship is your only option.