Mind Your Manners: When Online Discussions Turn Nasty

By: Steve Outing

What do you do when your site's discussion forums get a bit, well, rude and nasty?

Here's a novel approach that seems to work: Ask politely for your readers to clean up their language and manners.

That was the approach taken by the Dallas Morning News, which for about 9 months has been running discussion forums for its Web site. Some forums, particularly those covering the Dallas Cowboys football team, seemed to be attracting some particularly rude and obnoxious messages.

Obscenity, threats of violence, racism. While such unacceptable behavior was coming from only a very small minority of site visitors, it was enough to make the forums a less pleasant place to hang out online. So News online managers decided to take action.

Options for curtailing such a situation of course can include some hard-nosed technology solutions -- such as filtering for objectionable words, editing objectionable phrases, and/or blocking rude people from posting to the forums. But the News decided to "take the high road," according to Dale Peskin, assistant managing editor for development and new media. "We decided to have faith in the people who come to our site."

Soft-handed approach

About two weeks ago, discussion forum visitors began seeing a "Letter to DallasNews.com Users," which pops up as they enter a forum. Signed by Peskin, the letter urges forum users to adopt a manner of civility when they post something to the forums area. "The Dallas Morning News values the right to free speech," Peskin writes. "... But we do not accept obscenity, sexism, racism, insults, slander or threats in any medium as excusable byproducts of this freedom."

Peskin has some strong words of his own for the uncouth online users who would violate this voluntary code of ethics. He writes, "We (the newspaper Web staff) can filter objectionable words, but not the instinct that makes obscenity the strongest expression of a weak mind."

That phrase may have gotten to a few people. Peskin say that since posting the "Discussions and Decency" announcement on the site, the forums have noticably changed for the better. Indeed, he has received e-mail messages and even phone calls from people who wanted to apologize for abusive or obscene language they used in their forum postings in the past.

The forum that seems to cause the most trouble is the Dallas Cowboys discussion, which attracts not only local Cowboys fans, but people from around the U.S. Typically, before and after a Cowboys game, fans of the opposing team visit the News' football forum. The result, as you can imagine, can be "colorful."

Emotion affects some discussions

While most of the discussion areas on the site are the home to reasoned and even "high-minded" online conversation, a few issues bring out the worst in people. One such issue is a school board controversy in which members of the local black and Hispanic communities are engaged in a political fight over control of the school district. Some of the discussion has bordered on being objectionable, with an occasional racist slur injected. Peskin says the staff watches postings to that forum closely, and in a couple cases has pulled an objectionable message off the forum. (The News' staff do no review messages before they are posted to the forums, but will delete a message when deemed necessary.)

The News' Web staff also takes seriously the most serious breaches of online discussion etiquette, where users post messages that threaten others. On two occasions, says Peskin, not only were such objectionable messages deleted from the site, but the culprits were tracked down. In one case, a student was the problem, posting objectionable messages. His Internet service provider (ISP) was contacted, and the ISP Webmaster told that one of his users was violating the rules of the News site. Peskin says the News site blocked anyone from the ISP from using the forums for 24 hours, which was enough for the Webmaster to be convinced to terminate the account of the student.

As a matter of course, Peskin's staff sends e-mail to people who post messages to the forums that violate the site's rules. Sometimes, they may even get a phone call.

Web site staff members are expected to keep watch over the discussion forums, but no one person is assigned the task. The News' site operates with a staff of 7 dedicated employees, but it is well integrated into the print newspaper operation. Peskin says that the staff is "pretty liberal" in what is allowed to stay on the discussion boards. "People are allowed to be jerks online," he says. "That sort of runs through humanity."

Peskin says he loathes the thought of filtering out pesky people using blocking technology, because such a move would violate the spirit of discussion that guides the forums. Ideally, a forum's participants will police themselves, with other users telling violators when they've crossed the line into objectionable online commentary. Thus far, it's worked.

Likewise, the site has resisted requiring users to publish their real names and registering to use the forums. While in some discussion areas, users do sign their names, in others -- especially the sports forums -- users adopt "handles" or knicknames that allow them to remain anonymous.

The legal angle

Some news Web site managers might feel mildly uncomfortable with the News' approach, which takes a hands-on stance when it comes to discussion forums. Some newspaper lawyers are uneasy with a Web site dictating what is acceptable to post, for fear that the site could be held accountable should, say, a libelous posting be overlooked by the site staff and stay on the site. By adopting a stance of rejecting certain messages, a site may lose the argument that it is nothing more than a "common carrier" and thus not liable for what one of its users posts.

Peskin points out that no case law has been established on this issue. "Lawyers are paid to be skittish," he comments. "I don't mean that in a nasty way, but we don't run our newspapers (or Web site) based solely on what our lawyers tell us." Deciding what discussion forum postings are not appropriate to stay on the News' Web site is the kind of judgment call that journalists have been trained to make. Peskin says that lawyers' response typically is to advise playing it safe; nevertheless, the newspaper's attorneys have not told the Web site to stop the discussion forum monitoring practice.

Contact: Dale Peskin, dpeskin@dallasnews.com


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This column is written by Steve Outing exclusively for Editor & Publisher Interactive three days a week. News, tips, and other communications may be sent to Mr. Outing at steve@planetarynews.com

The views expressed in the above column do not necessarily represent the views of the Editor & Publisher company


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