Online readers' comments raise prickly issues for publications

News websites and newspapers with online editions are grappling with how to handle a growing wave of controversial commentary from readers, according to panellists on CBC cultural affairs show Q.

The difficulty is setting the tone, experts say

News websites and newspapers with online editions are grappling with how to handle a growing wave of controversial commentary from readers, according to panellists on CBC cultural affairs show Q.

They agreed that reader comments add something of value to a news website, but there are issues around how to moderate a large volume of comments and how to handle comments that are angry or abusive.

Reader comments are such a new area, there is no clear Canadian law to cover it, according to Jesse Brown, an online expert and the host of the popular Search Engine podcast on CBC.ca.

"There's a question in Canadian law that has yet to be resolved. We are very fuzzy on when hateful or abusive comments are posted on a blog commentary if the owner of that blog is to be held responsible for that. There are precedents on either side and we don't quite know where Canada stands," he said during the Q  discussion.

"Other countries have said, 'No, absolutely not. If you want to have these healthy conversations, website owners need to be free of any kind of liability for that,'" he added.

CBC is dealing with a complaint made by the Manitoba-based Southern Chiefs Organization last week that the CBC.ca reader comments sections are a forum for hatred of First Nations people.

Comments get abusive

SCO noted comments posted in the past year on the CBC Manitoba website that referred to natives as drunks, criminals or reliant on welfare.

Brown said online publications are taking a variety of different techniques to tackle abusive comments.

Brown, who moderates Search Engine comments, said he removes anything that doesn't add to the debate. At the Boing Boing site, the editors created a program that removes the vowels from postings that go too far, he said.

The difficulty is in setting a tone for reader comments, Brown said.

"In moderating a successful online forum, decisions can be made — the same kind of editorial decisions are made in editing the content that goes into editing a story under a byline," he said.

Mathew Ingram, the communities editor for the Globe and Mail, told Q he tries to set policies that allow as wide a range a debate as possible.

"My principle is: When it doubt, leave it [in]," he said.

"Our biggest issue at the Globe is we get 7,000 to 9,000 comments a day. We can't possibly moderate them all — I can't possibly do that myself. That's the single biggest issue we have right now."

Whether to delete or leave potentially offensive comments alone is a tough call, he said, in part because people vary in what they find offensive.

"You want to encourage stimulating debate but you don't want people throwing mud around in the comments," he said.

Ingram said other readers often enter the debate before editors can act, castigating someone who has been offensive in a comment.

"On issues that are extremely contentious, you end up with lots of people who spew hate and thoughtlessness, but then there are people who come in and reprimand those people and, to me, that's the sign of a healthy comment community ... ," he said.

He added that he sometimes enters postings in the comments section himself, trying to guide debate back to the subject at hand or discouraging comments that are mean-spirited.

"Sometimes that works, sometimes it doesn't," he said.

Journalists are divided on whether readers' comments add any value, Ingram said, but he argued that journalists should have a thick skin when it comes to criticism by readers.

There are many cases in which a reader knows more than the journalist or makes constructive suggestions on a posted article, Ingram said.

He argues that comment sections provide a valuable service for readers who do not have the web savvy or the time to create a blog.

Anonymous commentary

"The single biggest flashpoint for people is anonymity. …The risks, obviously, are that people feel no ownership for what they're saying. They don't feel they're accountable, so they just say whatever pops into their minds and that can be offensive," he said.

"At the same time, you have people who would never comment if they had to use their names. They're worried about their jobs, about their families finding out what they feel about certain issues."

Brown agreed that reader comments are a "really significant" development in online journalism.

"You could have a situation where you put up a story … and this amazing thing happens where people start taking your story apart, going through the facts — doing all sorts of background and fact-checking — better than any editor can do, because you've got this crowd-source effort to go through every line of it," he said.

"At worst, it can be like YouTube's comment section where it's sort of like a bathroom in a subway station with all sorts of comments on the wall. Everybody's completely anonymous. No one has any sense of their reputation within that community, everyone's a troll."

CBC has been in talks with representatives of aboriginal organizations in response to the complaints made last week, according to Jeff Keay, head of media relations.

"This is a moving target, in the sense that we continue to look for ways to strike an appropriate balance between keeping the forum as open as possible and reacting to inappropriate comments," he said.

CBC.ca gets more than 10,000 comments on some days and logged more than 200,000 in January alone.