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Uncivil dialogue: Commenting and stories about indigenous people

Categories: Canada, Community, Journalism, Politics

Today we made the difficult decision to temporarily close comments on stories about indigenous people. We hope to reopen them in mid-January after we've had some time to review how these comments are moderated and to provide more detailed guidance to our moderators.

I want to explain our rationale for taking this unusual step.

But let me begin by explaining why we have comments on our news site.

If you follow industry trends, you'll know that the value of commenting on media websites has been debated for years.

Many publishers, including some newspaper sites in Canada, have shut comments down. Others have turned the commenting function on their websites over to third-party social media platforms such as Facebook.

As Fortune's Mathew Ingram recently wrote, there are common complaints cited whenever a publisher makes this move: comment sections breed trolls and "garbage"; the proportion of readers that leaves comments is small compared with the general audience; it costs a lot of money and time to manage and moderate this community; and there are social media platforms better suited for this type of conversation.

Much of that is true.

But at CBC News, we also see many positives. We believe our comment section helps answer our mandate as a public broadcaster to reflect the country and its regions to itself. We believe it's important to provide the public with a democratic space where they can freely engage and debate the issues of the day.

Research shows that our audience not only expects comments on a news site like ours, but values them -- even if readers don't participate directly in the comment threads. Those who do leave comments consume far more of our content than average users, so they're a highly engaged segment of our audience.

We also have one of the most active comment spaces of any media organization in the country. In the last few months, we set records for the number of comments left on our pages, topping one million comments in September and October.

We've seen thoughtful, insightful and moving comments on our pages. We've seen ignorant, ill-informed and objectionable comments as well. All of it is acceptable, in our view, in a marketplace of ideas where the issues of the day are freely debated and tested. For that to work, the debate must be respectful, even if it's vigorous and pointed.

But as our guidelines make clear, we draw the line on hate speech and personal attacks.

While there are a number of subjects and groups of people who seem to bring out higher-than-average numbers of worrisome comments, we find ourselves with a unique situation when it comes to indigenous-related stories.

We've noticed over many months that these stories draw a disproportionate number of comments that cross the line and violate our guidelines. Some of the violations are obvious, some not so obvious; some comments are clearly hateful and vitriolic, some are simply ignorant. And some appear to be hate disguised as ignorance (i.e., racist sentiments expressed in benign language).

This comes at the same time CBC News has made a concerted effort to connect with indigenous communities in order to improve our journalism and better reflect these communities to a national audience. The success of our Aboriginal unit and our investigative journalism around missing and murdered indigenous women are just two examples of that commitment.

We don't want violations of our guidelines by a small minority of our commenters to derail our good work or alienate our audience. So we're taking a pause to see if we can put some structure around this. We will reopen comments as soon as possible.

Thank you for your patience in the meantime.


Brodie Fenlon

Acting director of digital news

CBC News and Centres

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