Friday, June 29, 2007

No comment, please, thank you, no comment, no...

There was no video or audio, because the judge in juvenile court decided it was better to sentence the 16-year-old girl who killed her father without pictures and sound. I covered the story as I had other court stories for years.

It was one of those stories, that after you were through, your stomach hurt. I should have taken time to ask myself: "Could that story turn into an interactive nightmare?"

Newspapers all over the country have been debating how they use reader comments, including at the New York Times, which edits them.

The tragic story of abuse inside a Wichita family that led to a teenage girl shooting her father to death pointed out why we should think about them.

We were busy working on the next day’s news cycle, when the girl’s lawyer, Laura Shaneyfelt, called and asked if we’d been reading the reader comments on the story. They started out with comments from what looked like regular readers. The story was shocking enough. But as the morning turned to afternoon, personal comments began to emerge. Although we had never named the juvenile girl, her name suddenly popped up.

Then someone blamed the slain father’s mother, by name. It was apparent that a family feud had fired up on-line at

We shut the comments down. I soon received a call from a woman who said she’d tried to find the comments, after someone told her about them, and couldn’t find them. I told her they’d gotten out of hand and we needed to eliminate them and stop the discussion.

“Thank you,” she said.

Other crime stories have drawn racist remarks on our pages.

We’ve been told that legally if you edit individual comments you can limit your defense should a bad one slip through.

We have issue similar to reporters at other paper I talk to: you can write a story about quilting and someone, somewhere will eventually leave a comment about how quilting promotes illegal immigration. What are you going to do?

Some problems, however, we can head off before they start. We now have the option of clicking a “no comments” box before sending our stories to the desk. I thought that was a box to signify we’d tried to talk to a cantankerous politician. I’ve been assured it removes the opportunity for controversial comments from readers.

We now have a list of stories we should consider in checking that box, including stories that name victims or defendants.

We also check the box on stories “likely to produce ribald comments,” although as I tell our editors, those are my personal favorites.

As we tackle the large learning curves of melding layers of our coverage with audio and video, we should also remember to read the comments on our stories each day.

I’d be interested in hearing what other papers are doing.

To do that, well, leave a comment.


  1. Great post, Ron. When I was in Wichita, I heard a reporter from a different newspaper talking about how reader comments had gotten out of control on a story she had written about gentrification in a particular neighborhood. At first I thought maybe she was being over-sensitive -- you know, journalists are not used to hearing the audience talk back. But as she provided more details, I learned about things I had never thought about before.

    In her case, the readers who had "gentrified" the neighborhood were angry about the story. So they started to post personal attacks against the reporter. They called her names. They claimed she had fabricated information (she had not). They accused her of personal bias.

    While it was clear, as I listened to her, that she felt personally hurt by the comments, it was also clear that it was not a case of a journalist having a thin skin -- or a big ego. The kinds of comments she described were unfair as well as untrue.

    Now, maybe the best course of action in that case would be for her to go in and provide the true information, to counteract the inaccuracies in the comments. But that would take a lot of time -- time she could be spending on the next story.

  2. We just (finally) turned on a bare-bones commenting system a couple weeks ago, and I've got a checkbox to manually turn comments on when it's appropriate.

    My basic checklist: Dead kid? No comments. Rape? No comments. Immigration story? If it's editorial or analysis, let 'em have at it, but if it's a news story about individuals or particular ethnic groups, no comments.

    It's also good to know your online readers - do you recognize the trolls from the paper's forums or blogs? Keep an eye on their comments, and if things go off-topic in a mean way, consider shutting them down.

    Another little phenomenon that could make a good research paper for someone else: The more public the comments are, the cleaner they stay.

    For example, while the forums might be a mudpit, the blogs are one step above that, and the comments on news stories seem to magically regulate themselves - people are just plain nicer in public.

  3. We've been allowing comments on our news stories and editorials for about 3 months now. We never announced the function but they really took off nevertheless. I'm in charge of monitoring the comments. And even though we have had some profanity and some personal attacks against people in the stories (one in particular about a father charged with kidnapping his children) I would say that those types of comments have made up less the 1% of the comments. I've had to delete maybe 8 comments so far. Our basic criteria is: no profanity, no libel, no personal attacks. Even though there have been a number of veiled racist comments (on immigration stories, of course) we have allowed those to stay and we have seen other readers calling them out for such remarks. All in all, the comments have been popular. Granted I work at a paper in a small Washington town with a small readership, so I am able to monitor the comments pretty easily throughout the day.

  4. We have an ongoing project documenting the lives of each homicide victim in our community. It seems to violate your 'rules' for allowing comments, but knock on wood, so far the discussion has remained thoughtful and civil.

    It doesn't get tons of posts - it's been up since the start of the year and has maybe 40-50 comments. But we haven't had to deal with any problems. Of course now I've probably jinxed myself :)