Sunday, April 27, 2008

Commenting foul balls

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel's Tom Haudricourt issued an umpire's warning to commenters on the MJS Brewers Game Blog:

Because there were so many crude and vulgar comments in the game blog Sunday in New York, we have discussed what should be done about it. The editors have decided to monitor the posts more closely, and those who use vulgarities will have their access denied to future blogs. You can change your call name afterward if you want, but that name will also be denied if vulgarities are used.

Words that we would never dream of using in a family newspaper are being used on the Brewers Blog, and we intend to stop it. It's a shame it has to come to this. I never dreamed we would have to even consider banning people from posting on the blogs.

So, this is fair warning. If you want to show crass instead of class, you'll be denied future access to posting on the Brewers Blog. The blog editors have assured me they can and will remove access for all call names who use crude and vulgar words. We think people can disagree with each other without using foul language or calling each other nasty names.

Kathy Schenck of the (indispensible) MJS Words to the Wise blog notes that the newspaper is considering allowing comments on their news stories when they switch computer systems.

Newspapers allow the free flow of comments on their Web sites for two reasons. First, readers use the commenting feature as instant messaging. They post comments, read what others have to say, and some respond. Second, newspapers are worried about liability. If they censor some comments but not others, do they open themselves up to lawsuits? Even if we wanted to approve all comments before they were posted, we do not have the resources to hire the dozens of people needed.

The official policy at many papers is to let the comments flow. Users may report abuse of policies against bad language and personal attacks, but the bar to be banned or edited is pretty high. I've seen comments on many JS blogs, not just the sports ones, that I would not want my son to read and that I'm embarrassed were under the Journal Sentinel name.

I'm not opposed to letting people comment without prior approval. In fact, I'm enthused by how passionate our readers are about the issues. And yet I worry that "a few bad apples" will spoil the newspaper's reputation as a credible forum for civil public discourse. Being that forum has been part of our mission for decades. Should we let mean and immature people hiding behind false names tarnish us?

Mark Maley, the CNI editor overseeing the CommunityNow sites for the MJS, has a bit more earthy view of comments. Answering in Milwaukee Magazine to the Kevin Fischer controversy:

"Even with the skirmishes, nobody's been sued," he says. "It's basically been a handful of people tossing mud. There's been some online behavior that I'm not thrilled about, but the vast, vast majority is pretty positive stuff." Even some of the people involved in the verbal duels have also engaged in enterprising work, like airing details of community development projects or conducting open-records requests for officials' e-mails.

But bad journalism might be what the readers want. "I'm not crazy about it," Maley says. "But the FranklinNOW site has rapidly become our No. 2 Web site rather than 6 or 7."

I actually thought the "cheescake breath" comment was funny, myself.

Maybe Maley should talk to Haudricourt about playing ball.

We've discussed comments and comment policies before and I think the discussions themselves tend to fall into a lot of finger pointing. For those of you that are new here, I do try to keep comments as open as possible. I do draw the line at libel and conspiracy theories, and I try to edit for profanity.

We'll see if a family newspaper can set standards that it can live with.