Earlier this year, the Orange County Register started treating every one of its stories online as blog posts, allowing the riffraff readers of Orange County to post comments. The idea was to foster community discussion, but that discussion has at time ranged from disgusting to repugnant.
Staffers have demanded that management remove the comments feature on the Web site — 65 of them signed a petition (see below). But OCR Editor Ken Brusic told the journos to hang tight and allow the free market of ideas to correct itself.
Here’s his internal memo:
I share your concern about some of the outrageous comments that appear on our Website. You may have seen my response to our diversity committee.
We have had some wide-ranging conversations within our company about next steps. You should have already seen one very small step, the posting — on the site and in newspaper stories — of comment guidelines. We have several other ideas to clean up what amounts to graffiti on the site.
We saw last weekend both the good and bad at work within the comments. The Mission Viejo immigration story and the follow-up to the obese woman surprised by her pregnancy demonstrated how mean, petty and vicious some people could be. The comments on the fire in the eastern part of the county, however, showed the extraordinary value of free, unfettered discussion.
We would like the community to be responsible for policing the comments rather than us. We will find ways to make that responsibility explicit, backed by our own actions to make sure participants live by the rules. We are hampered by a relatively unsophisticated tool. We are working with corporate IT to make modifications; we are also shopping around for better technology.
So thank you for your concern and suggestions. We do want our work to foster useful community discussion and debate that allow people to make good civic decisions. And much of what appears on the site moves in that direction. We just need to develop ways to push out the obscene and hateful voices.
I’ll keep you informed of our progress. I know you’ll be watching.
Here is the reporters’ letter to which Brusic was responding:
In reviewing the reader comments for stories on our Web site, some important issues need further discussion. Many comments have been racist, hateful, violent, sexually inappropriate and cruel.
Some of the comments have included: “gooks,” “beaners,” “dirty ni66ers cawk,” “a$$hole,” “bull$hit,” “fcukin,” “my nuts,” and “asians have tiny wieners.”
The vilest comments include:
“They should set up something similar to an animal shelter for these illegals. Mandatory spay and neuter!!! Euthanize the useless ones which is like 90 percent of them.”
“Another dead wetter skank on the road, SO WHAT!!!!!”
One comment Thursday accused someone in a story of being a child molester; then apologized in another post saying he had the wrong name. It seems that without some standards, many of the reader comments cross the line of civility, decorum and decency for a public discussion.
There are other large papers offering reader comments on their sites not encountering this problem. What are they doing? Bottom line, there should be some minimum standards for the comments section to keep responses at least close to a line of civility and not dropping to the lowest common denominator as they have been.
Here are some questions to consider in this debate:
* How many readers are not using this feature because of the low level of discussion?
* How many advertisers might see this and not want to advertise?
* How much more thoughtful and deep would the discussion be if some minimum standards were set and enforced?
* Will it be harder to get sources to talk if they know they could be subject to hateful, spiteful, cruel and/or racist remarks?
* Will the demographic audience we are interested in be turned off by the discussion we encourage by not enforcing any standards?
* Is it fair to expect reporters to monitor their own stories? That is a much harder job for breaking news reporters and others who write on controversial topics.
* Would we allow our children to read these comments? Are we a family Web site?
* Credibility is and has been a problem for newspapers. Will allowing these types of comments further damage our credibility? What about the Register brand?
We think there is a lot of potential to create a healthy, lively dialogue online but do not believe the current policies or lack thereof will allow us to achieve that.
FBLA thinks readers’ comments are rarely illuminating, but we’re curious to see what you think. Post a comment at the end of this post … oh, wait, that’s right. We don’t run comments. They’re usually more trouble than they’re worth.