Online comments: Our goal of civility is falling short

A Monday story headlined “Israel fires on pro-Palestinian protesters; 20 reported killed” drew more than  700 comments in its first three days online. As with many stories about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the comments had moved far beyond the news report and had devolved into personal attacks and hateful speech.

On Thursday afternoon, comments on the article were restricted, which means they’ll only be posted with a moderator’s approval. A note in the comments section from Reader Engagement Editor Martin Beck says, “It’s our opinion that this discussion has run its course. And moderators will be setting a *very* high bar for approval of any more comments.”

The Times is committed to allowing an online discussion. In an April 2010 memo, Editor Russ Stanton explained: “As unfettered as the discussions may be, they are worth hosting — and cultivating. The fact is, readers of online news expect to be able to participate. They want to be able to share their opinions and interact with journalists and other readers.”

Comments on news articles (as opposed to blogs) run through an automated profanity filter, then are posted automatically. The idea, as announced in that 2010 memo, is that the commenting community will police itself, with users being able to report inappropriate comments as abuse. Any comment reported twice will automatically be removed from the site. These hidden comments will be held for review by a small group of Times moderators, who will decide whether to republish the comments or keep them off the site.

More often than not, this works.

But a few hot-button topics seem to bring out the worst in online commenters: immigration, LGBT issues, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Monday’s article about the protesters was no exception. On Wednesday, Beck posted this caution:

“Our aim is to provide a forum for civil discussion of our articles and the issues raised within. Clearly, our goal of civility is falling short on this thread (and on many articles about the Israel-Palestine conflict).

“We ask commenters to be as cordial as possible and stop using loaded terms (including but not limited to anti-Semite, brown shirt,  Nazi, paid-propagandist) to describe other posters.”

In an email Thursday, Beck said, “I’d say the comments on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are the toughest to manage, largely because the topic itself is so contentious.

“It’s very difficult for us to figure out a commenter’s intentions by reading a comment. Did they mean a statement to be anti-Semitic? We go through that with every comment that’s flagged or moderated.”

Another problem is off-topic comments that turn hateful.

An article Sunday profiling the rehabilitation of a Marine who lost both legs in an explosion in Afghanistan drew comments suggesting that the young man — whose last name is Ortiz — was an illegal immigrant. The story has nothing to do with immigration. Those comments were flagged as abusive and were removed.

On another article, about the upcoming closure of the 405 freeway, reader Sarah Williams of Los Angeles emailed, “I am disturbed by the hate speech contained in the comments section of this article. A reader is repeatedly using [a slur] in reference to other commenters. This is very ugly and does not belong on your website.”

This is also dismaying to the reporters of the stories that have been overtaken by off-topic or hateful comments.

Columnist Steve Lopez said in an email, “I’ve had many emails from people wondering how I handle the onslaught of vulgar and racist responses, often unrelated to my column. They also wonder what the unsuspecting subjects of the columns and stories must think about having that kind of nonsense appear next to the stories, like graffiti on a bathroom wall.”

And Op-Ed columnist Patt Morrison emailed, “Personally, I think most comments were of a higher quality when they required pen, paper and a stamp.”

This is not unique to The Times. Other news organizations are grappling with the same issues. The Boston Globe takes the following steps to curtail abusive comments on sensitive stories:

“As a rule, we permanently disable comments on all stories about people who have experienced a personal tragedy, as well as all obituaries.”

“We also temporarily disable comments overnight for stories about immigration, religion, and religious figures. Commenting on these stories should be enabled at 7 a.m., and the stories should be given extra attention throughout the day so that we can move quickly if the comments degenerate.”

And the New York Times opens only a fraction of its articles to comments.

In an email to the L.A. Times moderators, Beck included a link to the “Community standards and participation guidelines” of the Guardian in the U.K. These “10 simple guidelines” spell out plainly and clearly what’s expected of online commenters. The list concludes:

In short:

If you act with maturity and consideration for other users, you should have no problems.

Don’t be unpleasant. Demonstrate and share the intelligence, wisdom and humour we know you possess.

Take some responsibility for the quality of the conversations in which you’re participating. Help make this an intelligent place for discussion and it will be.

Good advice.

Late Thursday, one of the moderators emailed an update on comments on the Israel-Palestinian article: “Users are submitting more comments with reasonable language/fewer personal attacks since they know we will not accept anything less.”

If only that were the case with every comment.

This column was originally published on on June 10, 2011.

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