Online news sites try new tactics to discourage “trolls” in reader comment areas

Transparency and community involvement are key, editors say

Asher Abbasi, “Mail,” December 10, 2010 via www.Icon Finder.com, Creative Commons Attribution-No Derivative Works 2.5 Denmark

News sites want an open exchange of views, but without allowing “trolls” to hijack every conversation in their reader comment areas. Arianna Huffington recently summed up the problem in a quote in an article by Richard Pérez-Peña in the New York Times: Anonymity is “an accepted part of the Internet, but there’s no question that people hide behind anonymity to make vile or controversial comments.”

Editors across the country have acknowledged the problem and are trying on new commenting policies and technologies in an attempt to address it. The approaches often walk a fine line between censorship and openness.

We were “increasingly concerned about the tenor of comments,” said Margaret Sullivan, editor and vice president of the Buffalo News. The comment areas keep readers on the site longer, but the comments often descend into a “lowest common denominator,” Sullivan said. Comments can quickly become racist and ugly.

The term “lowest common denominator” was also used by Scott Angus, editor of the GazetteXtra news site, in reference to readers who dominate comment threads on certain types of stories.

The Bakersfield Californian faces similar problems, said Californian columnist Jamie Butow. Butow said that comments were becoming mean and nasty and “weren’t adding any substance to the discussion.” On November 1, the Californian announced that it is looking into changing its online commenting policy.

Involving the community

The Californian staff is preparing for its change by holding a series of meetings to gather reader feedback on the site’s comment areas. The meetings give commenters with opposing views a way to see that their opponents are just human. The meetings brought out reader comments such as “Please don’t shut the discussion down,” Butow said.

The GazetteXtra also held community meetings to grapple with the problem, said Angus.

Tom Negrete, Managing Editor of the Sacramento Bee, said that the Bee started its investigation of the problem by hiring a researcher to analyze its comment areas. The researcher tracked down the most prolific commenters and found about 100 readers who each made about 1,200 comments a month. A few of the most prolific commenters made about 3,000 comments a month, Negrete said. Many of these commenters expressed negative views of the Bee, Negrete said.

The Sacramento Bee then held a series of community meetings and “coffee chats” to give readers an opportunity to speak to each other and to Bee staffers. Bee readers overwhelmingly supported the comment areas, and said that they used the areas to communicate with each other, Negrete said. Attendees who sniped at each other at the first few meetings are now friends, Negrete said.

The Bee is considering other ideas for increasing community involvement. For example, they may post the best comment of the day on the home page and give a reward for the best comment of the month, Negrete said. Ideally, the Bee “can be a place of learning and engagement for the community.”

The controversy over anonymity

On June 20, the Buffalo News announced that they will no longer allow comments from anonymous readers. The Buffalo News’s Comments page explains the new requirements: Readers must provide a valid name, home address, email address, and phone number, and cannot add any comments to the site until a Buffalo News staffer has called to verify the reader’s identity. Readers have to “make an effort” if they want to comment, Sullivan said.

Since making the change, the site receives fewer comments, but the comments have a “better tone,” Sullivan said. “We’re not trying to make it all bland and vanilla,” Sullivan said. “The whole point is to make it spirited.”

Syndicated columnist Leonard Pitts, Jr. from the Miami Herald has spoken out against allowing anonymous comments on news sites. Pitts said that he doesn’t understand the controversy around anonymous comments. It’s a “new-era version of writing a letter to the editor,” Pitts said. “People should have the forthrightness to stand up” behind their words, Pitts said.

But not every news site is convinced that anonymity should be totally banned. The GazetteXtra is one of them.

The GazetteXtra is based in Janesville, Wi., a city of 70,000 residents about 90 miles northwest of Chicago. The GazetteXtra receives over 4 million page views per month, Angus said.


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Angus said that Janesville used to be a GM town. But when GM announced in 2008 that the GM plant in Janesville would close soon, tensions ran high. “If you had the guts to speak out, there would be repercussions” at work, Angus said.

The Bakersfield Californian also has no immediate plans to ban anonymous comments, Butow said. One reader told Butow, “My husband works in law enforcement. I don’t want to jeopardize him” when asked her if she would continue to comment if she had to use her own name.

Limiting comments

Some sites limit the types of articles that allow comments. For example, the Bakersfield Californian no longer provides a comment area for crime stories, Butow said. However, the Californian didn’t want to shut down comments on other types of stories, because reporters sometimes jump in to answer questions and get story tips, Butow said.

The GazetteXtra announced on November 7 that it would no longer allow comments on “stories that involve crimes, courts, accidents, race or sex.”

Other news sites limit the amount of time comment pages remain open. For example, NPR’s policy is that “comments on story pages are automatically shut down after five days; on blogs they close after fourteen days.” NPR also reserves the right to remove comments, and even to remove entire comment threads. According to NPR’s Community FAQ page, “If we see you feeding a troll, we will remove both the troll’s comments and your responses.”

Revising the terms of use

The Californian is working on tightening its terms of use, Butow said. The new terms will define offenses that will cause a commenter to be suspended or banned from making further comments. The Californian will also require previous commenters to “re-agree” to the new terms of use when they are published sometime next year. In a recent blog post on bakersfield.com, Butow said that the site is finalizing its decisions on which changes will be implemented. Butow’s post also suggested things that commenters can do to deflect “blog bullies.”

The Sacramento Bee studied a number of other news sites’ policies before deciding on a strategy, Negrete said. One site the Bee studied was the Attleboro Sun-Chronicle, from Attleboro, Ma., which requires readers to register with a credit card and make a 99 cent payment before they can submit a comment. The Bee also briefly played with the idea of calling its reader comment area “Your 2 Cents,” and requiring readers to pay 2 cents each time they submit a comment, Negrete said.

Technology changes

On November 15, the Sacramento Bee announced that it will change over to the Disqus commenting system to gain greater control over reader comments and to offer usability features to readers. The new system requires readers to create a Disqus account or log in through Facebook or Twitter before they can submit a comment. The system can identify commenters’ IP addresses and can prevent abusive commenters from posting even if they create an alias, Negrete said.

The Miami Herald also recently announced that it is migrating to the Disqus commenting system.

Are the changes working?

The GazetteXtra has experienced a 50% reduction in bad threads, Angus said. Those threads “brought us numbers, but they weren’t good numbers.” Employees are currently spending more time working on moderation tasks, but the GazetteXtra is working on changes that will eventually reduce that burden, Angus said.

GazetteXtra readers have complained that the changes violate their freedom of speech, a charge that Angus disputes. But Angus has also received lots of positive comments from community leaders and advertisers.

Angus said that he expects a 10%-15% reduction in readership, but he’s willing to accept that. Angus said that advertisers are actually happy about the change. “Advertisers don’t like to see their ads next to nasty comments,” Angus said.

Negrete said that it has been helpful to acknowledge to readers that the Sacramento Bee sometimes makes mistakes, and to let readers see the process the staff uses to make decisions. Being as transparent as possible lets them see we’re trying, Negrete said.

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