Empire's dilemma with online reader forums

Posted: Sunday, February 17, 2008

The World Wide Web has given readers a role in the news business like never before.

No longer do they sit on the sidelines digesting the news as journalists serve it up, occasionally weighing in with a letter to the editor.

Now, as soon as people read a story, they can hit a Web link, voice their thoughts online and jump into the community fray.

Reader participation is a bigger part of newspapering than ever before, but it also comes with huge challenges: How do we let people voice their opinions in a way that's fair and responsible? How do we keep the public conversation civil and constructive?

As a newspaper staff, we are establishing guidelines and mechanisms so the comments don't degenerate into a nasty, vitriolic spewfest. We realize that offering such an open marketplace of ideas also can produce a spawning ground for pettiness, namecalling, false accusations and bigotry. That's why we have certain guidelines and will jettison comments if they cross the line of civility.

In case you are wondering about the ground rules, they're pretty simple:

• Keep it civil. No namecalling and personal attacks.

• Keep it clean. No profanity - that includes abbreviations for obscenities.

• Keep it dignified. No comments that degrade others based on race, gender, class, religion, sexual preference or other classification.

• Keep it honest. If someone makes a false claim and we know it, we'll pull it.

• Keep it appropriate. No comments that are libelous, abusive or in violation of someone's privacy rights.

Enforcing these guidelines can be complicated. And sometimes comments are in a gray area that require a subjective decision by editors. But when comments get out of hand, we pull them. We don't edit comments. We remove them altogether.

If people are repeatedly abusive in their comments, we ban those individuals from our site completely.

Some have asked us to require those who comment online to use their real names, as is required in letters to the editor. In theory, that's a good idea. In reality, it doesn't work.

The print and online media are just too different and they operate on a much different scale.

For instance, we print only a handful of letters to the editor each day, and we contact writers to verify they indeed wrote the submitted letters.

The online comments are far more voluminous - you can comment in online polls, Vox Box questions and to every local or state story and letter to the editor. We have so many comments and conversations going online that there is no way we could realistically enforce a requirement that people use their real names. Calling to verify all these names would require a staff the newspaper couldn't support and would completely slow down the community dialogue that the Web allows to flourish.

That's why it's standard practice for newspapers to allow readers to comment using only their online handles.

We think what's gained by more reader involvement is worth it. And we count on other ways to keep the conversation civil - namely, our readers.

We do check on reader online comments ourselves, but with dozens of online conversations going on at any time, there's no way we can police all of these conversations by ourselves.

This is your forum to speak out, and we rely on participants to blow the whistle when their neighbor gets out of line. We appreciate calls and e-mails when online comments need to be pulled, and we act on such requests as quickly as possible.

On all local and state updates, we have a "report abuse" button with each comment. We are working to get a similar button on our other stories as well. But until that happens, please contact the Empire at webmaster@juneauempire.com to report inappropriate comments.

We welcome readers to join in the conversation about the news of the day. And we want these discussions to be enlightening and thought-provoking.

We also ask that you take the high road when you submit comments and contact us immediately when others don't.

• Lori Thomson is the managing editor of the Juneau Empire.



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