Surf the comments section at the bottom of The Michigan Daily’s articles online, and it won’t take you long to find a potentially offensive message.
In a March 20 article titled “Saying no to Order of Angell,” one reader just posted the word “pussy.” In a March 21 article titled, “Burger joint’s name, logo irks LGBT group” another reader asked others to “grow a pair.” All this led one reader to ask, what are the Daily’s rules when it comes to website comments?
Unlike many mainstream newspapers, the Daily has no registration process before users can post on the website. People can just enter a name – it doesn’t have to be theirs – and they can post away.
According to Managing Editor Gabe Nelson, the Daily has looser standards for its comments section than mainstream newspapers. That means that coarse language isn’t banned from the comments section just like it isn’t banned from the news pages themselves. But there are limits.
“When that language becomes gratuitous or attacks another person, or simply becomes too much,” Nelson said, the newspaper won’t allow it.
For example, Nelson said that the newspaper removed one comment from the article about the burger restaurant after someone posted photos of a student and made insulting comments about that student. Nelson said personal attacks against others wouldn’t be tolerated.
The problem is that the Daily doesn’t have a reliable method to hunt down offensive posts. “We just don’t have the means to go through the comments,” Nelson said. Considering that some articles get hundreds of comments, many offensive posts slip by unnoticed. This is a problem the Daily is trying to fix.
“We’re trying to come up with a system to review comments,” Nelson said. The Daily’s website will be redesigned this summer, and the newspaper is contemplating a way for users to easily flag troublesome comments. There might even be a simple registration system before readers can post. The key is not to make the system too cumbersome to use, and Nelson said the paper doesn’t plan to create a registration system that requires users to sign up before they can read articles
Currently, the main way the Daily finds out about offensive comment posts is through reader e-mails. Readers who find a post they find offensive should e-mail Managing Online Editor Bridget O’Donnell at firstname.lastname@example.org, Managing Editor Nelson at email@example.com, the article’s writer or myself. Someone will look at the offending post and decide if it needs to be removed. If one user of the site repeatedly posts offensive comments, the Daily has the ability to block that user’s IP address.
But there are no plans to stop allowing comments. It’s now standard practice in the industry to allow them. Allowing readers to air their opinions relatively unfiltered is the least a newspaper can do to make itself more accessible to the public it serves. In fact, one could argue that comments are long overdue. Often, if you read the comments, they become a long discussion between readers about the merits, or lack thereof, of any particular news article and eventually veer off-topic into new subjects altogether. These comments are substantially different in character from letters to the editor and opinion pieces, and they should remain that way.
When the Daily does redo its website, it should find better ways to track down offensive posts. Like all newspapers, the Daily should find ways to make its readers more engaged with the product it produces every day.
Paul H. Johnson is the Daily’s public editor. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.