Indianapolis Star Editor Dennis Ryerson talks about a new policy the paper has for TalkBack, the online comments from readers. It seems things have gotten out of hand, and the Star is clamping down:
"IndyStar.com terms of service specify conditions under which this site may be used. These terms are posted on the Customer Service line near the bottom of our home page. Those terms make it clear that it is a condition of the use of our site that users do not, among other things: 'Use the Site to post or transmit any unlawful, threatening, abusive, libelous, defamatory, obscene, vulgar, pornographic, profane or indecent information of any kind . . . '
"TalkBack is intended for constructive commentary on stories in the news. We recognize that some opinions will offend some readers who disagree. That is the reality of the vigorous opinion-exchange process that we want TalkBack to encourage. However, TalkBack is not the place for racist or bigoted commentary or otherwise offensive name-calling. Nor is it the place for unsubstantiated allegations against others.
"We reserve the right to remove any remark we find offensive. To advise us of comments that we should review, site users may click on the 'Flag' advisory that is at the top right of each TalkBack post."
Ruth Holladay, a former Star columnist who did not leave the paper on good terms, says, basically, about time, but too little, too late. One of her commenters is even blunter:
I've found that I read the comments less and less. They are, unfortunately, very predictable. I sometimes play a little game where I guess how soon the predictable hateful comment will be made. Usually it's within the first 2 or 3.
The only solution is to monitor and approve each posting. I've done that, and it's a tedious, time-consuming task. Therefore, you won't see Gannett or any other paper doing it in these kinds of instances ... unless they can recruit volunteers to monitor for them. But the liability issues would probably be too great.
Online comments present a tricky problem for newspapers. We're used to a more sedate pace. People submit letters, we mull them over for libel and bad taste and such. If people are lucky, we'll publish them in a few days to a week. Online, people want to give and get feedback instantly, and it can get rough, especially if anonymous comments are allowed. Newspapers like the Star that get a high volume of comments find it tough to moderate all of them. Just letting them all go through brings a different set of problems, as the Star learned, so now they spot check.
I like the way this blog is set up. The first time someone comments, I moderate. After that, the person gets through without moderation, but I still have the ability to kill a comment after the fact. I've killed only a few that I thought went too far, and I've blocked only one person from commenting at all.