Magazine article Editor & Publisher

Do You Kiss Your Mother with That Mouth? Plagued by Profanity and Intolerance, Newspapers Struggle to Redefine the Comment Board

Magazine article Editor & Publisher

Do You Kiss Your Mother with That Mouth? Plagued by Profanity and Intolerance, Newspapers Struggle to Redefine the Comment Board

Article excerpt


If anything is certain about the digital age in which we live, it's that the rules have yet to be written.

IN ADDITION TO THE 24/7 NEWS CYCLE and the pressure to be first to break a story on the Internet, newspapers must also seek out ways to engage and converse with readers--not just through Facebook and Twitter, but on their own websites. Readers are no longer satisfied with the one-way conversation reading a printed newspaper offers them; they want dialogue. Modern readers demand the opportunity to add their own voice to the news.

That's how the comment board came to exist, and frequently the comments section of a compelling news story stretches longer than the story itself. In theory, the ability to comment gives readers, bloggers, and citizen journalists the chance to chime in on a story: to check facts, clarify points, share personal experiences, even pick a side and argue their case. All this while boosting the number of clicks on the paper's website, making it more appealing to advertisers.

The hiccup in this theory is that somewhere in the development of online culture, we got the notion that we don't have to tell the online world who we are in real life (ask anyone who has ever used an online dating service about that). Rather than use their real names, commentators prefer to use handles and avatars, essentially posting all their comments anonymously under their chosen screen names. By allowing comments to be posted to news stories anonymously, newspapers have opened themselves up to hate-filled rants and profanity-laden arguments that would make even the saltiest of sailors blush.

The dilemma for newspapers lies in the balance of presenting news as objective, fact-based articles, while allowing the online community to participate in the discussion without offending any innocent parties or getting the paper sued for libel.

A Self-Governed Entity

Most newspaper websites have started with the minimum requirement that users must register an account with the site before posting a comment. If nothing else, perhaps the process of registration gives the user a couple minutes to cool down before posting that angry reply. Many sites allow posts to be made under a screen name, some--such as The Wall Street Journal--require posters to use their real names.

Under its guidelines for the Journal Community, the paper states: "We require the use of your real name to prevent impersonations and bad behavior. The quality of conversations can deteriorate when fake names or nicknames are used."

While the Journal's guidelines expressly prohibit behavior such as posting advertising or spam in the comments section, readers will occasionally be treated to comments directing them to another website for the hottest deals on used furniture--only to return to the story later and find that comment has been deleted. Rather than moderating all incoming comments, WSJ asks its readers to be the watchdogs and flag comments that are inappropriate. Flagged comments are sent to a moderator, who decides whether they will be allowed or deleted.

The Human Element

In late October, visitors to the Portland (Maine) Press Herald's website,, were greeted with a message stating that the ability for users to comment had been temporarily disabled while the paper instituted a means of regulating the comments. …

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