One of the great things about life in the modern age is that it’s interactive. Media used to be a one-way street. Now you can read a story online and immediately rattle off your opinion about the topic of the story, the typo in the third paragraph, the writer’s predilection for unnecessary adverbs or a TV anchor’s hair style or suit.
For the humble web content producer, this means that on any given story, there may be a long string of anonymous comments which, in some unfortunate circumstances, may be used in court battles as evidence that a jury was unduly influenced by them. Generally speaking, this is not considered a good thing. Why should readers be able to leave anonymous comments? Shouldn’t they stand by their opinion? Internet advocates argue that your site should be accessible and interactive, without too many barriers – like making people log in to leave comments.
These are questions that are being seriously debated in the world of journalism. What is a news outlet’s responsibility when it comes to allowing such comments on stories? What if a comment is blatantly racist or sexist? What if it’s on the line of what’s acceptable, and who draws that line? Is that censorship?
In answer to the last question, you bet it is. I don’t think hate speech has any place anywhere, and if I see that a comment has crossed the line of what I feel comfortable with on the site, I will delete it. On WTHR.com, we also have a system whereby other users can flag a comment as inappropriate. If three people flag it, it comes back to the moderator for another look.
It’s all about balance. We want to give readers the opportunity to react to stories and to share their opinions or experiences. But more often than not, they also share their prejudices too. For me, if those opinions become too hateful, or if they appear to be libelous (e.g. “that woman is a liar!”), I don’t allow them. But it’s a very tough call, because it’s subjective. Some sites allow everything and let their readers do the policing. WTHR.com uses a moderator who looks at all incoming comments.
One thing to consider is your workplace’s anti-harassment policy. It will probably state that there will be no discrimination based on race, color, gender, national origin, religion or disability, among other things. When you post a comment on a story, think about whether your statement is a criticism based on those points. If everyone would just give a little more thought to their gut reactions, we’d probably all have a better chance at dialogue and discussion.