Moderating the Wild Web

The Globe and Mail publishes more words written by readers than written by their own staff. Who is watching over the online forums, and how?

Click here to listen to Rodenhiser speak

By Kathleen Callahan

There was a time when letters to the editor were the only way for civilians to break into a newspaper’s pages. Editors dissect these letters for grammar, length and readability, and they comprise a page—at most—in the paper. But this editorial dictatorship is over.

Now all a reader needs to be heard is an opinion and an Internet connection.

Most news websites now allow comments on some, if not all, of their stories. Blinking cursors in blank text blocks invite readers to leave instant feedback. But without proper moderation, posts often slip from civilized debate into virtual cage matches.

Moderators of these comments are faced with a new set of problems. Like teachers scanning the schoolyard with suspicious eyes, moderators must be on guard for inappropriate or offensive remarks. But how much moderation is necessary, and does it stop the flow of open debate?

In a story about online moderation, Angus Frame, the Globe and Mail’s web editor, wrote last year that the site publishes over 100,000 reader comments a month. “If you add up the words you’d discover that online we publish more from our readers than we do from our stable of professionals. We know the paradigm is shifting, and we are shifting with it.”

Journalism is moving toward more open-source reporting, and opening news sites to comments was a natural step in a changing industry. The blogging revolution gave the public a place to voice their opinions, interact with the news, and reach a global audience. No longer would people passively read their papers, cluck-clucking their disapproval to nobody; now they could transform that utterance into a comment for all to read. They were a part of it.

Rick Conrad is web editor for Halifax’s Chronicle Herald. From noon to seven, Conrad is the man who approves, edits, or rejects all comments to the website. The Herald is fully moderated, meaning every posted comment needs to be approved before appearing on the site.

Conrad’s moderation style is pretty standard. No swearing, nothing derogatory, no off-topic posts. The Herald’s moderation policy hasn’t changed since its implementation, but like the Constitution, Conrad says the way it’s interpreted is always “evolving.”

“When we first started, we were like, okay, almost anything goes unless it’s offensive; but now we’re trying not to shape the conversation but keep it respectable and respectful.”

That includes deleting personal attacks, like the deluge of “idiot” and “moron” insults that are commonplace in e-arguments. Conrad calls these “reactionary.”

“We just don’t want it to get down to that level,” he says.

A virtual free-for-all

David Rodenhiser knows all about that level of debate. Rodenhiser, who was a long-time columnist for the now-defunct Daily News in Halifax, compared the paper’s website to the Wild West.

The Daily News site was almost totally unmoderated. Users did not need to register a username or enter an email address to post, and comments immediately went live. Rodenhiser says Carl Fleming, the managing editor at the Daily News, checked the site a couple of times a day “to try to keep on top of what was posted.”

But Fleming had other obligations and managing comments on the site was not his first priority. “To moderate it, it would take a full-time person,” says Rodenhiser. “And that wasn’t at all Carl’s job. He had other things to do.”

And so comments on the Daily News site sometimes turned reactionary, vulgar and libelous. Unmoderated posting opened the way for insult wars.

“What I thought was happening was that the irrational conversation was forcing rational debate out of that online forum,” says Rodenhiser. “I think some people who probably had good points to raise for or against any argument would just not want to be a part of that whole scene and risk being attacked.â”

Rodenhiser says more could have been done at the Daily News to actively moderate, but the decision was financial. Moderating the site would have been a full-time job and the paper wasn’t willing to pay.

“It was encouraged for reporters to read all the comments that went on their stories, but reporters have other things to do.

You couldn’t be your own online moderator, it was just downloading the job to someone who already had too much on the go.”

“People will talk to you about freedom of expression, but it boiled down to money,” he says.

Does full moderation cut back on free speech and the flow of conversation? Conrad doesn’t think so. He says comments are released in a timely fashion; most are released shortly after submittal, and he says the longest they remain unreleased is two hours and even that’s “rare.” Ninety-five percent of the comments received are posted “basically unedited.” He says any post that is not offensive and makes a valid point gets through.

“You really can get into a conversation with commenting,” says Conrad. “We do tend to let a lot more things go through than our letters editor would. Online people are used to having a more free-flowing discussion or being allowed to say a little bit more online.”

Heather Desveaux, or “heatherdee” as she is known on the Internet, comments frequently on the Chronicle Herald site. She doesn’t think moderation stops the flow of open debate.

“I think the moderation keeps people honest and above board,” she says. None of her comments have ever been edited or withheld, but she says she has seen personal attacks pass through moderation.

Moderating the anonymous

The facelessness of the Internet means there is no way to hold users accountable for their words. The Internet instills its anonymous users with a sense of virtual courage that allows them to say things they otherwise may not.

Desveaux says that when sitting behind a computer “the temptation to say things that you might not ordinarily say to someone’s face is greater than if you were in front of somebody’s face.”

Speaking anonymously can have positive benefits. People can talk about sensitive issues online that they may not feel comfortable discussing in real life. But expressing opinions without a name attached can take away from the validity of a point.

The Chronicle Herald requires its posters to sign up with a username and email address, but never confirms the address, allowing people to register with fake or invalid emails. Conrad can ban usernames and email addresses, but there is little he can do to prevent the same users from signing up under another address.

“If you want to post online, I don’t see what’s wrong with asking people to have the courage to put their name behind what they’re posting,” says Rodenhiser. “If you’re just posting as Joan Public, from Screw You Backwater, who are you? You’re just a crank.”

There is also an issue of liability for moderators to consider. Newspapers can be held accountable for comments posted to the site by anonymous users.

Conrad says comments aren’t allowed on most crime stories because they could affect the outcome of a court case.

“This has happened a few times: someone comes on there and says, ‘yeah, he did it, I know he did it, and this is where he lives,'” says Conrad with a laugh. “Obviously we don’t release that.”

Similar comments were posted on the Daily News site but did not get filtered out by a moderator. Rodenhiser says there was a story about a woman who went from a political position to a civil service job that was a small news issue for a few days. One of the comments on the story said: “With this latest appointment, like all of Rodney MacDonald’s women, it’s not who you know, but who you blow.”

Rodenhiser called Fleming immediately to say they were opening themselves up to lawsuit for libel.

“Stuff like that would end up online all the time. Because no one was vetting it before it went online,” he says.

Fully moderated forums seem a better approach than unmoderated forums, but what about newspapers that cannot afford to hire a full-time moderator?

Users take control

Self-moderated forums, where users keep each other in line through flagging and rating systems, may seem a utopian ideal. Great in theory, but unlikely to work in practical application.

Slashdot.org does just that.

Slashdot is a news forum where users submit stories “with a nerdy slant.” Each story allows comments and these comments are rated by other users. Users may receive higher ratings for comments deemed “insightful”, “funny”, or “informative”, and lower ratings for comments that are “off topic” or “flamebait.”

Comments are rated on a scale of one to five. Users can then change their preferences so no comments that received a rating below a certain number are visible.

People do not post with their real names, but become known in the virtual community by their username and comments. The site works on a system of punishment and reward, so not only does it discourage bad commenting but also encourages intelligent conversation.

Self-moderation may be difficult to implement on news sites, but a combination of newsroom moderators and self-moderation is used on many sites.

Tim Currie, an associate professor of online journalism at the University of King’s College, says user moderation is the future of web commenting.

“I think that’s the way moderation is going because it’s simply too expensive to hire moderators for big communities,” he says.

“Also, with a heavy hand in moderation, you’ll scare away your audience, who thinks that you’re being arbitrary in what you allow and what you don’t allow.”

Currie says there is an “evolving consensus” that commenting forums will someday be run by users but most newspapers don’t have the proper software yet.

“Slashdot’s been around a long time, and their software’s been out for a number of years, and it hasn’t been picked up,” says Currie. “A lot of that has to do with acceptance in news organizations about giving their community that degree of control.”

Currie says the most important step for sites moving toward user moderation is to understand and have faith in their community.

“It generally requires publications to be active in their community by giving incentives and constant feedback and shaping it the way they want to have their community shaped.”

Moderators still have many kinks to work out in their systems, but commenting has caught on. And it can be beneficial to both reporters and readers.

Desveaux says commenting has given people a greater feeling of involvement with the news. “It’s a remarkable tool of democracy. Everybody’s so cynical, myself included, and I find that growing by the day,” says Desveaux. “So I find that having that tool kind of balances that feeling of apathy out. You feel like, ‘I might be able to influence that, or at least I’m going to give my opinion.'”

Conrad says commenting has been helpful for the alternate point of view it offers. “We’re kind of isolated in here sometimes in how we approach stories and it’s really interesting to see what real people think,” he says. “Because for all intents and purposes, journalists aren’t real people in a way.”