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Just as Facebook, Twitter and Google clearly are media companies — except in the narrow eyes of the law — reader comments should be viewed plainly as well for what they are: an inextricable part of a published story.
Civil Beat recently changed its reader commenting system, again. But the industry as a whole is missing many opportunities to encourage citizen journalism — inspiring everyone in society to practice and engage in thoughtful journalistic behaviors.
Why else bother with comments?
When I started working in the newspaper business, in the mid-1990s, one of my regular assignments was to go to a local mall and ask random people what they thought about various topics in the news, usually related to something timely and controversial.
What I collected from the “man on the street” was snippets of immediate thoughts, usually a sentence of two, from busy people convinced to take a break and talk. They were reflective of what someone might say on the spot, in public and to a stranger. Never insightful, rarely interesting.
We published those weekly in a collection of responses, with “mug shots” of each person; always five (an odd number, so some perspective appeared to be dominant, even though the sampling was of convenience and entirely unscientific). The segment filled space on the page, illustrated the paper’s local ties and demonstrated that we really were talking to our readers.
Another entry-level job I had for a while was confirming letters to the editor. For that, I would get a stack of mostly handwritten letters (yes, really, pen on paper, and often in cursive) that had to have a full (and real) name and a phone number on them to be publishable. Anonymous letters were tossed. Editors picked the best. The ones that survived the culling were relatively meaningful.
My task was to call the writer, talk voice to voice (not just leave a message) and ask if that person wrote the letter and still wanted it published. If so, I would type it in, and the letter might make it into the paper within a few weeks, or so, depending on the backlog.
If I had time, or if the person hesitated at all when I asked for them by name, I would cross-reference the name and phone number of the letter writer with the paper telephone directory, just to make sure they matched and someone wasn’t trying to trick us. That almost never happened, though, as the handwriting and phone check and quality check typically worked well to establish identity and intent.
What I see from today’s reader commenting systems, like the one Civil Beat uses at the bottom of this page, is a sort of a hybrid between “man on the street” and letters to the editor, only without the commenters being identified.
When I was doing the mall interviews, I usually had to ask 10 people for every one that would stop and answer the question and let me take a photo. I learned quickly that the photo part often was the deal breaker, so I front-loaded that aspect into my inquiry, making sure I could take the photo before spending time gathering the other details, only to be disappointed by the camera-shy.
Diversity in this case was defined not by random sampling but by a diversity of mall-goers shopping early on Tuesday afternoons, so I could meet my deadline.
With today’s anonymous, web-tool-processed reader comments now, most of the practical and physical obstacles for gathering and publishing discourse have disappeared. Comments have become a matter of convenience, like the mall interviews, compared to what they could be, significant contributions to public discourse.
To learn more about the Civil Beat system, I asked Editor Patti Epler to give me a behind-the-scenes tour. She complied, even sharing developer emails and files and giving me a thorough demonstration of the backend interface.
Civil Beat handles hundreds of comments a week, thousands a month (about 4,000 in October). Editors have been rejecting about 20 percent, for reasons that include the use of banned words and personal attacks on other readers. Editors can shut comments off entirely but only rarely have done so, such as when emotions flared hotly around a recent Community Voice piece on settler colonialism in Hawaii.
Readers already have noted a few ways the new system could be improved: “Respect” responses don’t indicate the source; commenters aren’t notified when someone responds, and it would be nice to limit multiple aliases.
I noted that even sophisticated news readers — like those who frequent Civil Beat, The Washington Post and The New York Times — can be shockingly crude online, especially when granted anonymity.
An entire cottage industry of filth eliminators has arisen with the Internet. The Coral Project, which designed and developed the open-source commenting system Civil Beat now uses, included in its documentation a file of more than 1,700 banned words or phrases that might regularly slip into this system if editors don’t choose to have them automatically ejected by algorithmic sensors.
Some of these are double entendre-type uses of common words or seemingly benign phrases that have been perverted into something else. But there also are filters for more than 80 ways to sneakily use the F-word.
One mantra we had in the industry in the pre-Internet days was that the “family newspaper” could be read at the dinner table, without concern about who might see it. That could be a stifling standard at times. At one newspaper where I worked in the 1990s, for example, we actually had a full staff meeting to debate and protest an editor’s decision to not run a photo of two people of the same gender kissing in a story about same-sex relationships.
But that standard also created a common ground where people of all types and all ages could come together to talk about current events.
The new Civil Beat system has trimmed the types of responses readers can have to any particular comment down to five: no response, share the article, reply, flag or “respect” it. While “respect” appears to be a better overall label than “like,” to show you appreciate a comment, according to academic researchers who have compared them, I prefer the idea of a curated post-story conversation rather than a like-fest or emoji-athon.
That means more emphasis on talking to each other through replies (and more curating of those replies to add value to the original story). But it also means publishing and being accountable for those responses, as a news platform, not standing to the side and saying that the content at the end of the story, the last thing people read, that’s not me. I had nothing to do with that.
The legal protection for that fancy sidestepping comes from Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, legislation enacted in 1996, the same year America Online brought the Internet to many of our households via a dial-up connection. While the law will have to catch up, common sense dictates that Facebook is a publisher, and reader comments are an integrated part of each published story, just like Uber really is a taxi service. Calling it something else to avoid regulations is a grand parlor trick.
With Civil Beat’s new system, its editors and reporters now screen every comment submitted to the system, before it appears to the public. While the process and the speed are different, it’s the same basic idea formed with letters to the editor during the pen and paper era. What does this writing say? Is it appropriate for our readers? And should we publish it?
Brett Oppegaard has a doctorate degree in technical communication and rhetoric. He studies journalism and media forms as an associate professor at the University of Hawaii Manoa, in the School of Communications. He also has worked for many years in the journalism industry. Comment below or email Brett at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Reader Rep is a media criticism and commentary column that is independent from Civil Beat’s editorial staff and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of Civil Beat.