Tag Archives: Comments

Watch the video of the WSTA’s online comments forum

I left town the night of the forum on online comments hosted by the West Sound Technology Association on Feb. 15, and since returning over the weekend I haven’t had a chance to put my thoughts together on the blog. Maybe I’ll get to it this week.

If not, Charles Keating of WSTA has done me one better. He’s got the video up. There’s a few soft spots in the sound, but the picture is solid.

Here’s the link: http://vimeo.com/20231916

Say what? An open discussion of anonymous online comments

Tonight Tuesday in Poulsbo I’ll participate in a panel discussion hosted by the West Sound Technology Association that some of you may find interesting.

The topic is anonymous speech and civil discourse, or as we call it in the newsroom: “the comments.”

Though not a part of our printed newspaper, I’m sure many of you read or participate in the comment threads that follow nearly every story on kitsapsun.com. I hear mixed reactions from readers about our practice of accepting that public feedback on the website, and from time to time even wrestle with my own view of the rapid and free-form response to the media now allowed by technology.

One thing I feel confident in saying is that anonymous online comments aren’t going away — but that they also will evolve. And that’s where we, as a newspaper and the host of the most popular comments site in the county, play a role.

So tonight Tuesday I’ll sit with Charlie Bermant, a former reporter in Kitsap County now at the Peninsula Daily News, Tracy Record of the West Seattle Blog, Jeff Rhodes, editor of the Port Orchard Independent, and First Amendment attorney Bruce H. Johnson. We’ll discuss some of the issues, including: Are comments made anonymously or under a pseudonym mutually exclusive with responsible discourse? What tools are available — or being experimented with — to ensure productive community conversation? To what extent should we be concerned with vitriol or inaccuracy in online forums?

Those are the questions that go through this newsroom, and among editors across the country. I wrote a few months ago that I think this will be a big issue for media, in particular community newspapers, not only because of the positive and negative effects commenting has on a website’s reputation, but also in assigning the amount of time staff members invest in interacting with the online community. Like any new technological tool (remember, commenting has only been widespread for the past three or four years), it’s going to take some time to figure out the best use.

The forum begins at 5:30 p.m. at the Poulsbo City Hall Library, 200 NE Moe Street. A $10 fee is asked of non-WSTA members who attend. For more information, call 206-984-3509.

The Kitsap Sun in New York City

You won’t see cops and courts reporter Josh Farley’s byline the early part of this week, and we’re pretty proud of the reason why.

Josh flew to New York City Sunday, and for the past two days has taken part in the 6th annual Harry Frank Guggenheim Symposium on Crime in America at John Jay College of Criminal Law. The symposium is for journalists, legislators, policymakers and scholars to discuss issues surrounding criminal justice. Josh is one of just 26 newspaper, magazine and television reporters who were invited through a fellowship offered by the school’s Center on Media, Crime and Justice, most of whom come from larger news outlets than the Kitsap Sun.

If you pay attention to Josh’s work you won’t be surprised at his recognition, of course. He’s the main reporter for our Code 911 section and covers criminal cases, and also delves into broader stories about criminal justice, public safety and legal issues on a regular basis.

Part of what earned Josh the fellowship was the story idea that he and local news editor Kim Rubenstein submitted as part of his application. Fellows were asked to explain an ongoing reporting project or a planned investigation that would match with one of the conference’s topics.

The story pitched — which Josh is required to follow through on, so you’ll see it soon enough — surrounds the courts and social media. We published a story in October during the jury selection for Daniel Mustard’s trial, when potential jurors were asked if they had posted in the story comments on kitsapsun.com following our reporting on the murder of Ruby Andrews.You all know what comments following most criminal stories can be like, and the question attorneys were asking was whether participation in those comment threads could influence a potential juror’s thinking.

That question, a first in this county’s court system and likely something pretty rare nationwide, prompted Josh to begin thinking about how social media is forcing change in the criminal justice system. He and Kim have brainstormed more ideas to get at the issue, and hopefully something he can get feedback on this week from experts around the country.

Look for the story soon, and we’ll look forward to hearing about our reporter’s trip to the big city later this week.


Comments Not Welcome Here (but over here they are fine)

I have a feeling the next few months will bring a number of experiments with online comments at newspaper sites. I’m basing that on what seems like increasing talk on journalism websites and blogs, and probably more conversations in our newsroom and with other Scripps newspaper editors lately, as I mentioned in my last post.

If so, I think it’s a good thing. There’s a better place we can get in terms of hosting comments, we just can’t all agree on what that place looks like.

Here’s today’s offering, from the Janesville Gazette in Wisconsin. The editor there has prohibited comments on stories that involve crime, courts, accidents, race or sex. The stories, Editor Scott Angus writes, are ones that typically “deteriorate into insults, innuendo or otherwise offensive remarks.”

I’d argue we see insults between users more often in the Sun’s online political “debate” than in comments on court reporting, but every community is different. We have a rule of thumb here at the Sun to not allow comments on stories involving child sex offenders, seeing little value an a high risk of harm or hate to emerge, but we’ve drawn the line there. I doubt we’d follow what Angus has done. Closing a few doors while leaving others open doesn’t seem to clearly state your philosophy on online/anonymous discussion, and seems more influenced by staff time and resources than belief/disbelief in the value of comments under a pseudonym or anonymous identity (which Angus does believe in, he writes). I’ll be listening to see if the journo world hears from Janesville again as the comments conundrum continues.

Speaking of which…

I’ve agreed to take part in a forum sponsored by the West Sound Technology Association on February 17 at the Poulsbo Library, where a few others and I will tackle this question: Are Anonymous Speech and Civil Discourse Mutually Exclusive?

That title is a mouthful, but it’s a good question. Register at the WSTA site if you’d like to attend.

Beautiful Storytelling in St. Petersburg

We kvetch in the newsroom too often about segments of our online comments community, as many of you know. (And as many of you do when you read some of those insulting rants that seem to follow many police blotter items or controversial topics.)

Today I read an article that wasn’t just a well-told reminder of how everyone has a story, but that also effectively handed the online “trolls” some good news to ponder.

It was what we call a “news obit,” written about a man that would never qualify for a news obit because he wasn’t a politician, or a prominent business owner, or a pioneer in a community*. He was just a guy — a restaurant dishwasher who was killed by a hit-and-run and then slammed by those anonymous commentors we struggle to reason with.

Here’s the St. Petersburg Times set-up:

Shortly after the St. Petersburg Times announced Mr. Smith’s death on its website, a reader posted a comment stating the following: A man who is working as a dishwasher at the Crab Shack at the age of 48 is surely better off dead. Web editors removed the comment, deeming it an offensive and insensitive insult to a dead man’s friends and family. Though hardly unusual — check out the comments beneath stories about any recent tragedy — this one spurred the Times to make Mr. Smith the subject of this story, as a reminder that every life matters.

And here’s the full story.

There’s plenty more to say about online comments, of course. As I’ve mentioned to you we’re re-evaluating the whole thing both in our newsroom as across Scripps newspapers, and one of the strategies is to do exactly what St. Pete editors did; that is, acknowledge comments and call out the inaccuracies and hurt in them. More on that to come.

For now, a reminder to all critics that there’s a story to tell behind every police report, and a life behind every story we tell.

*That’s not to say we never recognize someone who’s “just a guy” with a news obit, or must do it to prove a point. Read Derek Sheppard’s 2005 account of a similar death in Bremerton.

One other update: A few weeks ago I wrote about my neighborhood’s effort to help the victims of the Jacobson Avenue fire. The barbeque was last Sunday, and a few dozen from the neighborhood showed up through the afternoon. People gave what they could, and more than $2,000 was offered for Zak, Ariel and John to help with their needs.

On Comments: And who are you?

Eric Zorn, playing off a line by columnist Leonard Pitts today in his Chicago Tribune blog, expressed something that has circled around our discussions of how to handle story comments* on kitsapsun.com.

Pitts, who I respect a great deal and really enjoy reading, says anonymity is the scourge of newspaper message boards. He’s not wrong. That’s the Internet in 2010 for ya, and anyone tuned into our own comment threads knows how quickly a topic can be led off the rails (and much more quickly when a bikini barista is involved). Zorn, in part agreeing with Pitts, also says anonymity and pseudonimity aren’t a bad thing “if they’re overseen by a relatively vigilant proprietor.”

That’s more or less where we’ve settled, at least for the time being, regarding Kitsapsun.com comment threads. The genie is out of the bottle as far as building a system that verifies every identity of a Web site user, and I’m not convinced that level of security is what we want to be asking for either. As journalists have know for years, there can be value in anonymity.

What we are striving to do as a staff is become part of the conversation, whether by moderating the comments on our blogs to filter out those without merit, or by simply joining the comments to answer questions and lend credibility to the dialouge.

Interestingly, on the same day I read Zorn’s column I was on a conference call for editors from the newspapers in our company, Scripps. One slide compared the number of staff comments posted on stories to the number of comments removed, to see whether there is a correlation (i.e. if more staff participates does it lower the number of comments that need to be removed?). In the months of January and February, the Kitsap Sun had far and away the greatest ratio of staff postings to staff removals among Scripps papers, and three times as many staff comments posted than most. And we’re among the smallest third of the 14-newspaper Scripps family. So the numbers, while not conclusive of any effect our joining the conversation may have, do show that our staff is out in front about being engaged with our readers. Which I think will pay dividends in the years to come.

But back to the Zorn column. One last thought, on this statement: “The compromise solution seems to me to be allowing people to comment and discuss issues using a consistent identity of some sort.”

That stuck with me given the, let’s say, robust discussion of the Sun’s political leanings and other failings that followed my last post. Although several of you regularly use your full names, like Mick, Colleen, Sharon and Roger, others prefer a pseudonym. I don’t think there’s a problem with that as long as the pseudonym follows, as Zorn wrote, a “consistent identity.” I don’t agree with all of the challenges you leveled, but those with a consistent identity have credibility to me, and thus are deserving of a response to the extent time allows, and in those comments I rarely see the rants that Pitts worries about.  (Though I do see those sentiments in our story comments section far too often for comfort.)

I suppose what I’m saying is that, even after the heaping spoon of criticism I felt left with after that last post, I do appreciate the integrity and tact most of you show in the online back-and-forth. Let’s keep it up.

— David

*Comments are different than “blogs.” It’s a pet peeve of mine, yes, but if you want my attention don’t call the section after a story, where you leave comments, “the blogs.” I hear it once a day, and sigh. But enough of that rant.