New Tools Aid in Policing Web Comments

By: Jennifer Saba

In January 2007, the Knoxville (Tenn.) News Sentinel published a series of stories covering a gruesome murder: A couple had been carjacked, tortured and killed, their burned bodies discovered a few days after they had gone missing. The couple was white. The five people arrested who allegedly perpetrated the crime are black.

The comments section on Knoxnews.com ignited. Jack Lail, the News Sentinel’s director of news innovation, recalled during a Nov. 5 Poynter News University/ Associated Press Managing Editors webinar: “We had all kinds of inflammatory statements and trolls” ? users who repeatedly pick fights and stir things up ? “and we dealt with comments from white supremacist groups.”

It got so bad that defense attorneys on the case went to court to request that the newspaper stop allowing comments or at least to have people use their real names, because it was potentially tainting the jury pool. Lail said the judge ruled against that move, but News Sentinel execs knew they needed to take some kind of action to reign in users.

“It brought home to us,” Lail reflected, “that it’s not just something that is just happening on our Web site, but affects people in our community.”

Lail said Knoxnews.com gets anywhere from 35,000 to 55,000 comments a month (inspired by 15 million to 17 million page views), an enormous load to sift through and a time-consuming task for already overloaded editors.

The E.W. Scripps-owned paper decided to ask the community how to best handle comments, by hosting a roundtable discussion. That resulted in an overhaul of the comments sections, using a new system that gives users the tools to help monitor what others are saying.

“It starts with the users. We asked them to help us moderate what they found unacceptable on the site,” Lail said during the November webinar. That includes everyone ? those who are active commenters as well as the passive readers.

The tools allow users to suggest that some comments be redacted and others banned, decisions that are ultimately subject to review by the paper. After a comment is flagged by several users, it automatically gets removed from the site. Often, the mere threat of getting booted by the community is an effective deterrent, said Lail, who added that auto-redaction “helped significantly” during late-night shifts.

The News Sentinel also pays close attention to “rookie” and “sketchy” users. Rookies are those who have registered (registration is required to leave comments) but haven’t been commenting. A “sketchy” user, as Lail explained it, is someone who has just signed up in the registration process.

The News Sentinel requires a real e-mail address, and blocks those sites that specifically allow users to create e-mail addresses that can’t be traced.

More newsroom employees were enlisted to monitor comments and delete offensive ones ? something that previously only online producers were allowed to do. Now, editors and some reporters have the power to strike comments, and Lail encourages reporters to read comments on their stories and respond.

The site doesn’t allow comments for all articles; it’s determined on a case- by-case basis. When readers are not allowed to comment on a story, an explanatory note accompanies the article. Said Lail: “We became ruthless about deleting the mean and banning the trolls. We just tightened up. Our number of comments did go down when we became more aggressive.”

At one group of Hearst-owned Connecticut Web sites, inflammatory comments got so out of hand that executives decided to temporarily disable the function. Keith Whamond, executive producer for Hearst Connecticut Media Group Interactive, says that it was too easy to comment anonymously on the group’s sites. The Hearst dailies ? the Connecticut Post, The Advocate in Stamford, Greenwich Time, and The News-Times in Danbury ? were using Topix to power its comments system. Whamond notes that there’s no registration requirement through Topix. Readers had the ability to flag questionable comments, but Whamond says he was overwhelmed with work: He received some 200 e-mails a day that required attention.

There were advantages to using Topix, including a “sizable chunk of traffic,” says Whamond, who adds that the group of sites would garner roughly 10,000 comments a week.

Topix CEO Chris Tolles says in response: Welcome to your future. Comments, he contends, are what really drive people to Web sites. “The people who are making mean comments, those are your customers,” he says. “It’s not just the good people, it’s everybody. Editors want control, and commentary challenges that control.”

For Hearst, the problem of anonymous commenters posting racist, threatening, or homophobic messages was too much, however, and Whamond wrote to readers that comments were temporarily frozen. Readers are allowed to contribute on the newsroom blogs until a new platform ? a homegrown registration system mashed up with commenting system JS-kit Echo ? is put in place sometime early next year to coincide with site redesigns.

So far, readers have been supportive. Whamond’s note about pulling comments earned a nod of approval from users on the paper’s blogs ? many of whom signed off using their full names. “It was universally accepted that we would see a dip in traffic” if Topix was dropped, he says, but keeping it would add to his workload of policing so many comments. “The solution would be, don’t allow comments on anything,” he adds. “I don’t think that’s a solution.”

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