Reader-comments sections of news websites needn’t be cesspools. Editors should EDIT comments as they would letters-to-the-editor.

Reader comments needn't become cesspoolBY PETER SCHEER–Some people have no choice but to live in a cesspool. (Consider the young protagonist in Slumdog Millionaire, leaping into a pool of human waste in order to escape a locked latrine.) But news organizations are not among them.

The cesspool that many newspapers occupy is the “Comments” sections of their websites. This is the space,  typically following a paper’s own stories and editorials, where readers have their say. If postings to that space are completely unfiltered, it is sure to be stuffed with the rants and invective of people who have too much time on their hands (and too little gray matter between their ears.)

Reading online comment sections, one can easily get the impression that bigots, psychopaths and conspiracy theorists comprise a majority of newspapers’ online readers. (Note to publishers: This is hardly a desirable demographic to show to  advertisers.) In reality, such commenters  are relatively few in number, although they are, regrettably, loud and prolific.

Sociologists will someday figure out whether these readers are bona fide nut jobs, or just average Americans transformed by the anonymity, and access to a broad audience, that the internet makes possible. My own guess is that they are the same people who, as high school students, scribbled profanities on bathroom stalls. The internet affords them, as adults, a superior surface for graffiti.

Not all newspaper publishers give free reign to miscreants in their comments section. Among those who do, however, a commonly heard rationale is that they are forced to stay their hand due to legal constraints. In this they are mistaken. It is a mistake based on common misconceptions about what the law does, and doesn’t, require in this area.

Misconception number one is that newspapers, by actively moderating online discussions, and by editing (and selectively deleting) comments, assume liability for defamatory comments posted by readers. Although traditional print publication of “letters to the editor” does carry some of these risks, online publishers of user-generated content enjoy a degree of legal protection bordering on complete immunity—thanks to a 1996 federal law, Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act.

Section 230 protects newspapers that operate  their reader Comments section as a cesspool, permitting readers to post whatever they wish, no matter how libelous or harmful. Injured parties can sue the authors of those online comments, but not the newspaper. The newspaper is shielded even if it has been given notice that statements in its Comment section are false and it refuses to remove them.

But newspapers are equally protected if they act responsibly, screening comments or editing them. Section 230 was intended to overturn pre-1996 court decisions suggesting otherwise and giving news organizations a perverse incentive to refrain from editing user-generated comments. Under Section 230, as long as editors don’t alter the meaning of a comment completely (for example, by changing a reader’s comment so that it says the opposite of what the reader posted), the newspaper will be protected.

Misconception number two is the belief that to regulate readers’ comments, enforcing rules of civil discourse on  a newspaper website, is to engage in a form of censorship—and that censorship by a news organization, if not strictly illegal, is at least hypocritical.

But this concern confuses censorship with editing. It is the role of news organizations to edit the content that they publish. Although the online venue may remove the need to edit comments for length, it does not diminish the obligation to edit for substance. The First Amendment insulates news organizations from interference by government in their editorial decisions. The independence thus established includes the right, under the Constitution, to control all content published on a paper’s pages or its website.

Reader comment sections have huge potential. Particularly in communities dominated by a single newspaper, an internet-based “letters to the editor” platform offering unlimited space, the opportunity to debate both other readers and the journalists responsible for the paper’s news stories and editorials, can reflect democratic self-government at its best.  However, this ideal can only be realized if editors take seriously their responsibility to edit.

A newspaper’s online comments section can be either a cesspool or Platonic ideal. Editors and publishers have to choose.
—–
Peter Scheer, a lawyer and journalist, is executive director of the First Amendment Coalition. Your comments–which will be screened prior to publication–are very welcome.

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4 Comments

  • Yep, I read and wonder! But, it is a difficult situation between wanting comments, and not wanting comments that are destructive to the site.
    And, like everything in the world, when people get the power to limit comments the comments will seldom reflect positions that contradict the policies of the site.
    So, you get torn between letting bad stuff be read, or having people thinking you are eliminating conradictory messages.

    Kind of like a politicans voice mail or email boxes. LOL

    Perhaps a better solution would be editing of posting with the good all ++++++ in the place of the abusive language. Kind of like beeping the audio.

    By the way, what is coming in audio on the website page comment area where users can verbally communicate.

    You think there is a problem now?

  • Overall this article makes some good points but you really shouldn’t make such sweeping generalisations about people that post in comments sections. There are many different kinds of people from many different backgrounds who post comments. Comments sections are filled with people who want to express their opinions (government, campaign group and other organised or vested interest posters aside)just as you would hear people talking about any topic in a bar. So can you expect the quality of comments to be any higher. Journalists are mainly just expressing their opinions (propaganda aside)too but they have already been filtered by their employers and have to ensure certain standards for their editors and readers.

    People posting in comments sections don’t have to worry about such things as quality. I think it is a good idea to improve the quality of comments through editing so long as it doesn’t slide down the slippery slope into unnecessary censorship (necessary censorship would be removing hate speech and profanity).

  • “Free rein”—as in not pulling on the reins—not “free reign.”
    This and the confusion misuse of “diffuse” where the correct word would be “defuse”—you don’t diffuse tension, i.e. spread it around, you defuse it, as in defusing a bomb let’s say— are my top 2 journalistic bugaboos.

    That said, I think the problem of comment cesspools infects the political discourse. In particular, when right-wing anti-Obama assertions go unedited and unchallenged by the news site, they gain unearned traction. Cesspool is the perfct metaphor. Thanks for writing this.

  • There is no positive reason or benefit to having comment sections at all despite the sugar-coated reasons linking them to the promotion of democratic self-government and free speech. The news sites began allowing such comment sections routinely precisely around the time the ubiquitous website ads started to infest online sites. Contrary to this article’s stance, I believe the news sites purposely allow the comments sections precisely because of their outrageous nature. Humans are drawn to “cesspools” and I believe the majority of people read the comment section for entertainment value and never comment. There is accordingly an increase of exposure to the ads on the website which is the main incentive for keeping the comment sections. If the comments were rational, sane and appropriate to the story in question (civilized), there would be a dramatic decrease in the mass number of people who simply read the comments for kicks and amusement or simply because they are drawn to the crudeness of the posts; and this decrease in reading would decrease exposure to ads (or promotional links uncouthly organized on the right side of page in the case of this particular website) and revenue would drop. Thus, it is actually is beneficial (financially) to the media websites in all venues to allow comment sections and I believe the ludicrous nature of these comment sections are actually encouraged under a false and thin effort to monitor them. The more outrageous the story the more likely there is a comment section down at the bottom. It never fails. They are here to stay, however, just like the cesspool television shows that draw mass viewership. They are revenue-producers. That is the main incentive for allowing them and for the media to encourage their crudeness as much as possible. If it’s a liberal site it’s filled left-leaning rants against Republicans. If it’s a conservative site, it’s filled with right-leaning invectives against Democrats. And the most irritating thing is that a hundred posts will say exactly the same thing over and over. Maybe in provides a psychological method of feeling connected to humans in an ever-increasing disconnected world (I do not characterize the growth of technology as promoting human connectivity in any way; but rather, I feel quite the opposite despite the intuitive notion that is does). Also, the amount of individuals drawn to and sucked in by an obvious post by the ever-present Internet troll is amazing. One obviously taunting post will draw dozens of outbursts- all to the delight of both the troll and the website monitors because it increases the ad exposure instantly by a hundred viewers a minute. For years its no secret the majority of news is filled with depressing and violent stories and only occasional good news- as a filler. They were revenue producers for television back in the day. It’s just a logical move from television to Internet. The genie is out of the bottle and they will only continue to be monetary-providing cesspools. There is always the option of simply not reading them. It’s just irritating that they even exist since their purpose for existence is so transparently ethically questionable. Freedom of speech ought to be thought of as a common sense notion and very positive attribute of a civilized and cultured society. However, I think anyone who would at this point characterize our current society as either cultured or civilized (which it once was) is quite blind to reality. As society declines, freedoms should not increase but begin to be slowing curtailed. The historical pattern going back thousands of years democracy, aristocracy and monarchy only comes about quicker by concurrently allowing more democratic freedoms upon the verge of any civilizations beginning its inevitable phase of decline. Thus, by encouraging, providing and promoting these so-called freedoms provided to an increasingly base and morally bankrupt growing class within this current society, the next phase (aristocracy) will only arrive sooner. The existence of online comment sections in our society as it has now become is only one example of instances where certain freedoms ought to be reigned in. By encouraging more freedom or at least characterizing more and more things as “freedoms” or “rights” we are only going to lose them all. I would gladly give up my so-called freedom to post this comment if comment sections were all removed en masse (and to even classify internet comment posts as some kind of freedom or right is ludicrous and absolutely to be derided and mocked by future civilizations when we become just one more footnote in the long list of civilizations whose rise and fall becomes a subject of academic and political study).

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