A newsroom guide for handling online comments
“The New York Times and The Washington Post have the two smartest teams of lawyers and editors in the world, and they’ve come to opposite conclusions. The Times is a review first/post later system and The Post is a post first/takedown later system. So there’s no industry standard or consensus.” – Frank LoMonte, Student Press Law Center
• Basically, there are two approaches for moderation of online comments:
— Post first and then take comments down if they are inappropriate
— Moderate and only post those that meet criteria
A third option, of course, is to allow no comments at all, but that runs counter to media serving as a forum for public expression.
For the most part, the same principles apply to handling comments as with handling letters to the editor in print or guest commentary in broadcast or online, including verification of sources and information. Once the decision is made to publish user comments or responses, label them clearly, keeping in mind your journalistic credibility and commitment to accuracy.
• How to handle inappropriate comments (*see model policy below)
Pulling down posted comments looks like censorship. And if you allow comments to be posted without moderating them first, you create the potential of incorrect and legally dangerous comments being captured/cached and available forever. Why publish something that jeopardizes your media’s ability to serve your community and then remove it after complaints or realizing it’s inappropriate? It’s all about the policy you establish, the atmosphere you seek to create on your site and your ability and willingness to enforce your rules and standards. Remember, if you edit comments and change the intent or meaning you are legally responsible for their content, according to Section 230 of the Communication Decency Act.
• Criteria for comments
Just as you need a policy for letters to the editor, you need a policy for determining when you will allow comments. Consider: Staffs can be responsible for the content of comments posted by others on their sites despite some special legal protections that exist in the online arena.
Ideally, those making comments will use real, verifiable names and email addresses. If they don’t, commenters could remain anonymous if the student editor knows their real names. Approving content ahead of time is not prior review because it is done by the student staff, not school officials. Anonymous comments should be taken down after a short time
Use of real names is an ethical issue. Knowing who a person is can give comments clarity, meaning and context, and add credibility. Because part of the impact of using comments is about creating community where all can participate and feel safe, knowing identities generates trust in the commenter and the comment. Search engines pick up comments as if they were content, so you have an obligation not to spread falsehood; information must be verified
• Be upfront and transparent about your policy and explain it thoroughly
Student media can establish a forum by setting ground rules of prior approval/rejection without changing content unless cleared with the author. Do not edit or revise comment content. Revisions should be made by the author.
Once posted, comments or information should not be removed for transparency, accuracy and reality in terms of establishing a historical record.
• Establish a procedure for handling comments
Appoint an online editor and staff to vet comments (which means training for that staff on how to handle comments). Online comments should be signed with verifiable addresses and IDs that are verifiable. Require real names or IDs known by student editors or identify who will verify the names and identification before publication
Study other media, including The New York Times, The Poynter Institute and The Washington Post, for guidelines as part of the process of setting up a policy. Decide what is permissible in comments ahead of time and clearly publicize the criteria. An example would be no personal attacks. Also publish a statement that a student “editor” will contact the poster for information, clarification, to have writer correct grammar, etc.
* A model policy section for handling comments might look like this, with content adapted from The Washington Post , The Poynter Institute and introductory wording modeled on The New York Times:
Model Comment Policy
We moderate comments to enable readers to share, without abusing others, informed and intelligent views that enhance the marketplace of ideas, focused to the topic of discussion not the presenter.
By posting comments:
1.We recommend use of real names for commenting. We will allow anonymous just like we allow anonymous sources provided we have verified the commenter’s identity.
2.You agree not to submit inappropriate content. Inappropriate content includes any content (as defined by the Student Press Law Center) that:
• Infringes upon or violates the copyrights, trademarks or other intellectual property rights of any person
• Is potentially libelous or defamatory
• Is obscene, pornographic, or sexually explicit
• Violates a person’s right to privacy
• Violates any local, state, national, or international law
• Contains or advocates illegal or violent acts
• Degrades others on the basis of gender, race, class, ethnicity, national origin, religion, sexual orientation, disability, or other classification
• Is predatory, hateful, or intended to intimidate or harass
• Contains advertising or solicitation of any kind
• Misrepresents your identity or affiliation
• Impersonates others
3.You agree you are fully responsible for the content that you submit. You will promptly remove any content that you have posted should you discover that it violates these rules or that it is otherwise inappropriate.
See more for the complete package:
Evaluating legal demands
Evaluating ethical choices
10 steps to a “Put Up” policy