You know what seems crazy to me?
The obscene, banal tit-for-tat name calling that takes place in the "comment ghetto" forming around some of our stories: Accusing people of thievery, insobriety, killing puppies, child molestation and more, just for an asinine attempt at one-ups-manship. And that's what's turning up under our run-of-the-mill coverage.
"Insult me, will you? Why, I'll show you! I shall unleash the fury!" And so begins the furious pounding of the keyboard, as a (more often than not) inarticulate, frothing diatribe riddled with grammatical errors oozes forth from an over-developed sense of self righteousness.
The Gerard Hawthorns, demrocs, kaiser sozes of the world (there's others) all remind me of Comic Book Guy from The Simpsons. In fact, that's how I picture all of them in my head.
Anyhow, the point of this rant is that I'm re-emphasising to our evening news desk (who load the next day's stories for the Web at the end of their shift) to get a little more acquainted with the "Disable comments" option in our content management system. Some stories aren't worth wasting valuable staff time sorting through the kind of filth they're almost guaranteed to attract.
For more on this topic, please check out this article from the Poynter Institute.
Also, I refer you to previous entries from this blog:
January 29, 2009 (pay particular attention to the last three paragraphs) and February 11, 2009.
Update: Wednesday, July 29, 2009 — 2:18 p.m.
The same caller sent me an e-mail on this topic yesterday, to which I just responded. Copied below is the body of that e-mail. Your thoughts?
It was indeed me with whom you spoke briefly yesterday regarding the disabling of comments on the story "Suspect charged in abduction case."
For starters, I refer you to this post I published on my blog. There, you will find a few thoughts about what led to the decision, as well as a link to an article published by the Poynter Institute that highlights how the same issue is being confronted at other newspapers:
[Editor's note: You don't need the link. You're already reading it.]
Believe me, I did not get into this profession to be a censor. However, experience has shown that allowing comments on some topics is an open invitation to escalated abuse of our policies. Insults, unfounded accusations, racist or bigotted attacks and other such commentary has no place in our publication - either in print or online.
While these topics come up in other news articles we produce, and attract their share of unsavory commentary (some of which gets reported to us as abusive and will be removed if it does not comply with our standards), certain articles seem to serve as focal points. The article you cite is one such example.
Other examples: When we reported on 22 local teens who were ticketed for underage possession of alchohol with intent to consume earlier this year, the article (and subsequent follow-up) was flooded with comments, many from those same teens arguing with (seeming) adults about teen alcohol use. A fine discussion to have, except it devolved into name calling, swearing, general threats and threats against law enforcement. I spent the better part of a day and a half culling the most offensive comments.
Several weeks later, we published an article about a 20-something woman who died in a single-car accident in which police suspected alcohol was involved. The comments ranged from expressions of sympathy to comments expressing delight (delight!) that someone finally died from their behavior but didn't take anyone else with them. Many in the woman's family read these messages, and a few weeks after the funeral I took a very somber call from her mother in which we both expressed our sympathy and regrets for what happened with the comments.
In both cases, the ability to comment on those articles was disabled after it got out of hand. Unfortunately, it got out of hand. Both these incidents contributed to our requirement that readers of the site register in order to leave comments, which I was very reluctant to do.
There are other examples, too.
Quite frankly, though, we all have too much to do here at The Saratogian to moderate commentary on these hot-button topics. From our perspective, it's easier to keep the floodgates closed in some instances.
And I pose this question to you: What's more restrictive? Denying the ability to leave a comment outright, or picking and choosing what stays and what is "too offensive" in a contentious comment thread (a task that generally falls to two or three people here at the paper)?
We are not trying to stifle voices. People have every right to send in a letter to the editor (firstname.lastname@example.org) or call our Sound Off column (518-583-8713) to express their points of view. Of course, submissions of these sorts are subject to editorial oversight and may be edited for grammar and clarity, or omitted from publication entirely. In that sense, restricting comments on a particular article is a natural extension of the editorial rights we already exercise.
In your eyes we damage our integrity by not allowing comments on particular articles; in the eyes of others, we damage it by allowing others to pollute the comments with content that some might consider offensive. As this illustrates, it's a balancing act. The Saratogian is not alone in trying to walk this fine line.
Thank you for reading and taking the time to call and write to epxress your concerns. At the end of the day, we're here to serve you and our other readers. I'm CC'ing our managing editor, Barbara Lombardo on this. If she has anything to add, or disagrees with a point I've made, she'll let you (and I) know.