Like a lot of people in the news business, I’ve been following the travails of the Ventura County Star and its problems with commenting on articles with some interest. For those who haven’t been, in a nutshell this is what has happened: the Ventura County Star opened up comments on its articles with very little protection, and was later swamped with trolls and comment abuse. They were forced to shut the comments down before opening them up again with the following changes (this from assistant managing editor John Moore’s blog).
VenturaCountyStar: All comments are routed through our online registration system. A script attaches the registered name to the comment. It also allows us to identify the email address that was used in registration. (And thanks to our friends at our sister newspaper Naples Daily News for doing this for us.)
That allows us to contact via email anyone who files objectionable comments. If they persist, we can block their registration in addition to blocking their IP address.
If we send them a warning and find their email is phony, then we ban them for violating the Terms of Service.
It also creates a self-regulating factor for many of us. By forcing people to use registered names (which should be their real names), we invoke the “Mama’s listening” rule: Don’t say anything you wouldn’t want your mother to hear.
We’ve also attached a basic profanity filter which will allow comments to be posted, but replaces the growing list of profanity with asterisks.
And we are encouraging, imploring and, yes, empowering readers to police themselves. We’re asking them to contact us immediately if they find objectionable posts. And we are still investigating the model of volunteer moderators (maybe not as extensive as Slashdot).
When I first read that, I admit a big part of me screamed “well, duh!” But that’s an unneighbourly point of view. Moore’s points are very valid to everyone thinking about opening up comments on articles, but even doing all these things and more still requires a leap of faith. If you make the choice to allow unmoderated comments on articles, even with all of these caveats, you are increasing your risk of legal exposure. Let’s be completely honest about that. Making that leap requires a sophisticated and adult internal conversation between legal and editorial teams, and a full and frank acknowledgment of risk. Once you’ve got that, you can start worrying about how you do it. But I don’t often hear a frank discussion of the risk among advocates of participatory journalism, probably because newspaper lawyers don’t blog, but journalists do. It’s still a long bumpy road we’ve got to travel.