Well, when I asked the question, I knew I was going to hear a lot about the comments. Many of you don't like the vicious posts in our comments -- and neither do I.
The question is, what to do about it.
There's a lot of skepticism out there that required registration would actually help. It takes about 30 seconds to get a valid email, free, without any kind of identity verification. If someone is determined to be vicious, they don't have to work very hard to get around registration.
A pre-approval process would place all comments in a queue, pending Register staff approval before being publicly posted. That's proven to keep the nasty comments off a site ... because it keeps pretty much every comment off the site. And I don't think that's because of the instant gratification problem -- who wants to have a conversation with a time delay? It robs the comments of any sense of dialogue. That's what is different, and I think valuable, about the comments, as opposed to a letter to the editor. Comments are not just commentary on the news of the day, they're a conversation between community members. That kind of social capital is sorely lacking in today's society.
But I admit, much of that is destroyed by the current tenor of our comments. I'm as frustrated as you. We spot check the site and remove any comments that are over the line. We remove any that are flagged or that we get called about. We disable commenting on stories when it gets out of hand, block users when they go too far, too often, carefully watch stories we think might bring out the flamers, and we even disallow commenting on stories -- such as the NAACP story -- that we know are going to start out over the line. And none of that has worked. Honestly, I don't even get why we have this problem. Hasn't everyone been through kindergarten and learned that you don't treat people this way?
We monitor the situation but our priority is still to give people the freedom to express themselves. We make our livings by the freedom of speech; it's our default position; we have a hard time being the censors.
Interestingly, my understanding is that the law would see these comments as wholly the responsibility of the commenter. Legally, we are a "common carrier." We're like the phone company, and we provide a service. What people say on our service is their own. That's exactly why we have a responsibility to offer comments and to err on the side of freedom and openness.
Some people will abuse it, and that is their responsibility. Our responsibility, as a news organization is to get the truth -- to illuminate dark corners, to reveal what's happening in your community. And this is, it turns out, part of what's out there. I don't really know what is behind it. But I know that our principles guide us not to hide it or hide from it, but to seek it out.
If the law sees the problem as being the responsibility of the commenter, I guess I see the problem as being the responsibility of the community. This vitriol is out there, whether it's on our comment boards or not. It's all over the internet, not just here in Sandusky. And I doubt the internet created this problem. It's been festering a long time, the internet merely exposed it. The question is what are the rest of us going to do about it?
I can tell you this, not a whole lot of people are using the "report abuse" link underneath every comment. We could take the comments off this site entirely, but all that will serve is to hide the problem, and at that it will be only momentary. If they're not saying it here they'll be saying it somewhere else soon enough. We have a broader problem on our hands, and it's not just here, but all over this country: we have become a society without a social feeling, a community without communion. The Register could censor the comments with all the righteous indignation we can muster, but wouldn't it send a much more powerful message if the rest of us came together as a community to decide what kind of society we want to be?
PS If a comment of yours has been removed, you can contact us via the contact form on this site with your screen name and the approximate time you posted and we will be happy to tell you the reason.
PPS The forums disappeared because they are on servers in Sandusky (the rest of this site isn't) and there was no internet access to our building from Sunday afternoon to today.