Nancy Barnes: Reader comments open way to freewheeling debate

  • Article by: NANCY BARNES , Star Tribune Editor
  • Updated: July 16, 2008 - 12:47 PM

Some stories, though, seem to attract an unfortunate level of hate speech directed at minority or ethnic groups.

A few months ago, we quietly began a new option at startribune.com -- allowing readers to post comments on stories online. This is hardly a new concept; lots of other news sites have already rolled this out to varying degrees.

The idea is, in many ways, a noble one in a country that embraces freedom of speech: Let everyone have their say. In our interactive world, the news doesn't just belong to our reporters and editors as gatekeepers -- it belongs to the whole community. Before, the only way readers could respond to something they read was to write a letter to the editor or call us. Now, they can engage immediately in the conversation and react not just to the news as it is happening but to other readers. It creates an ongoing community discussion, and for some readers, that becomes part of the entertainment.

Before we started this, a number of editors along with the publisher sat down and discussed what this would look like and how we were going to filter out expletives and nasty comments. We don't edit the comments -- doing so would create a legal liability for the paper. However, we do have software that filters bad language, and we have a part-time employee whose job entails deleting comments that don't pass community standards. We also put in place a process where readers can flag inappropriate comments and vote for comments they find useful and relevant. And users who want to post a comment need to register,

In late January, we launched this with sports, where there is a sizable online community every day, then politics. Despite a few hiccups, the discussion was lively, opinionated and healthy.

Then, in June, we opened up commenting in local news. When we took this step, there were some immediate, unfortunate developments.

Local crime stories spawned ugly, racial hate-mongering comments aimed at a wide variety of minority and ethnic groups. Within hours, literally, I started to hear from thoughtful, concerned readers about the nature of thecomments.

"I hate to rein free speech in," wrote one, "but I would suggest considering (until you can find another solution) simply not allowing the comment feature on stories related to crime, politics or immigrants. There seems to be no way to control the dialog." Would you please just stop this, asked another.

As editors, we struggled to find the right balance. In some ways, it has been educational to us all to see the diatribe and the level of racial and ethnic animosity on certain topics. At the same time, nobody wants to condone that type of discussion. I won't repeat the comments; suffice it to say that many were simply uncivilized. Even the mechanisms we put in place to strike offensive comments didn't help that much. "That led us to the uncomfortable position of just turning it off" on stories related to crime and safety, said Will Tacy, our managing editor for online.

That experience aside, the decision to allow commenting online has generally been valued by our readers. "We've had almost 160,000 comments posted since we began," Tacy said, "and of those, we have only had to take down 8,000." More significantly, we've had nearly 3 million votes cast regarding particular comments.

"That suggests people like this," Tacy said. "They like the engagement. They like the discussion. In certain areas, there is an often rollicking but genuine conversation and discourse."

This free flow of opinions and ideas is central to who we are as journalists, readers and as community members. And so, please accept our invitation to weigh in; let's have a rollicking debate on the stories of our community, our state and our country. Nothing would please us more.

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