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Reader comments can be a source of agita for news sites. Popular Science decided to shut its comments off for good last September, and last month the Chicago Sun-Times decided to put theirs on temporary hold in hopes of finding a better system.

At NPR’s Code Switch, Matt Thompson writes about how the site that covers race and culture has tried to handle discussion during its first year. Topics like race and ethnicity can bring out the worst in commenters, which is why Code Switch threw the gauntlet down early, telling readers what types of comments will get yanked from the site. The watchwords are moderation and transparency:

For everyone upset about a deleted comment or revoked posting privileges, there’s likely another person who values a more tightly managed discussion. And while some would prefer for us to err on the side of allowing more comments rather than fewer, a loosely managed discussion inhibits some from participating. We value all of these users, but there’s a genuine tension between their needs.

Implicit in the mission of covering race, ethnicity and culture is a mandate to unearth less-often-heard voices and perspectives. We keep that in mind when trying to balance the needs of users we hear from a lot alongside users more prone to lurking. If a discussion about the cultural dynamics of hip-hop starts off with a comment dismissing hip-hop as not being real music, then hip-hop aficionados — those likeliest to have insights to share about the topic — are less likely to participate. Part of what we’re trying to do is create a community where that doesn’t happen. Similarly, for some users, the most pressing issue in race and ethnicity is higher rates of criminality among some demographics, and every thread about race becomes an opportunity to discuss that. Our aims here are somewhat different.

So if we delete your comment, it’s not necessarily because we think the comment is “bad” or “wrong,” or because we want to suppress your point of view. Most often, it’s because the comment doesn’t get at the topic we’re aiming to discuss at that moment, in this space. We are trying to curate a discussion that is intelligent, unique, and novel — a discussion that moves us — and that may require removing comments we think are not directly contributing to the focus of the conversation at that time.

Matt also talks about the importance of having the right tools for enabling conversation, including better filters for comments.

— Justin Ellis
                                   
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  • Lynn Pounian

    I don’t understand why this isn’t standard operating procedure for all but the sleaziest online publications. Poorly moderated comments boards often suck the reader into a vitriolic vortex – within seconds after entering, the article itself is wiped from memory and only the stench remains.

    As for a system, how hard can this be? Publicly set clear boundaries, hire a few intelligent moderators to manage the boards, give them marching orders and allow them the discretion to make case-by-case decisions. Mid-flight correct every couple weeks. Problem solved.

    (Oh, and, don’t delete this, please.) :)

  • http://www.ktvz.com Barney Lerten

    YES. At our active local TV station comment community, I as moderator don’t draw the line that tightly on off-topic comments, or so tightly define the term “hateful” from our Terms of Service that 4/5ths of the comments would have to be booted. But having an “almost anything goes” approach as many national news sites do would make the threads almost completely useless, not to mention the legal heartburn for my bosses. It’s time-consuming, and at times babysitting, but the only way to reach that coveted middle ground between no discussion and rampant jerk-ism. So thousands of judgment calls are made.

  • http://www.ktvz.com Barney Lerten

    You make it sound simpler than it is, at least for me, Lynn. But vital? We agree!

  • Lynn Pounian

    Curious, Barney: With an actively moderated board, over time do you notice a decrease in the number of incendiary or questionable comments?

  • Cody Lee Rhodes

    I would love to take Code Switch’s statement verbatim and cast it in some fancy metal and place it on every stretch of the Internet that has comments.

    As a moderator, cleaning up these comments really tears at your soul.

  • http://blogs.twincities.com/contacts/2012/09/13/jen-westpfahl/ Jen Westpfahl

    I agree Lynn. Unfortunately, you answered your own question about why it isn’t SOP: “hire a few intelligent moderators to manage the boards.”

    When a top editor has to choose whether to hire a reporter or a moderator, I know who they will choose. Or a more likely scenario, when they have to choose to layoff a reporter or someone who has comment moderation as part of the job, I know who they will choose.

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