Saturday, March 25, 2006

Speechless - The Union's comments policy and practice

(FYI, there's a sequel)

Monday update# and Sunday update# appended.
(and, as usual, minor edits; added/removed quoted sections)

Read the whole thing. Please, if you're from the blog world or care about journalism, read the whole thing.

The Union's editor, Pat Butler, wrote his weekly column today on The Union's comments system (which involves pre-moderation, which is keeping them very busy*).

It starts out reasonably:
we do not edit comments. We either post them or delete them....personal attacks, accusations and profanity are not welcome in our house.

then it continues
Unfortunately, not every comment made gets posted*. As a result, some readers have charged the newspaper with censorship or of violating their First Amendment rights, which is a misinterpretation of that cornerstone of the American way.

We are not stopping anybody from saying anything. You can always start your own Web site and say whatever you please there. The problem is that your audience will likely be significantly smaller than what you will find on

But before you go out on your own you might want to contact local bloggers if you can find them. One place you might look is on our Web site where they like to solicit traffic. One warning to bloggers: We have to check your blogs before we will consider posting your address and that might take some time.
Our favorite comments are the ones that address local issues, which means when we're scanning a long list those are the one's we look at first.

So what are the standards?

...we do not edit comments. We either post them or delete them. So perfectly reasonable commentary will get punched out if it ends with a [scurrilous] claim...
...there's still this question about whether we are censoring when we decline to post a comment. I prefer to think of it as editing...
Our standards on the Web are looser than...what we would allow in a letter to the editor...
The goal is to publish as many as we can. Overall, I would estimate that fewer than 5 percent have been sent into oblivion. Now, a closing thought from another commenter that summarizes our position quite well:

"Of course, it's a matter of taste! And considering is a privately owned Web site that opens a forum for the entire community, it has every right to determine what "tasteless" is and whether it wants to publish it on its OWN Web site..."

Here are the comments of mine, that were apparently too tasteless to appear on The Union's site:*:
(for comments on publisher Jeff Ackerman's column)
I haven't gotten an answer from Jeff yet - if you have questions for him too, please submit them at my most recent post at

(for Web editor Kady Guyton's comments)
Kady, my comment over at Jeff's column still hasn't shown up there. Could you let me know what the problem is?

Kady's most recent blog post is on their comments too, but it seems her understanding of the policy was different, and reasonable:
A few comments never saw the light of day today.

Why? Let me tell you.

The majority went off on tears about how mind-numbingly stupid the original poster is.
...A few were directed at me wondering why their post didn't make it online. This is for one of two reasons:
1) I haven't read it yet. Pat Butler and I are the Official Comment Readers and we only have four eyeballs between us.
2) Your comment was one of the ones I mentioned above.
Poor Kady. I don't think she's the one driving this policy.

Sunday update:

I should follow my own advice*, and not blog when the emotions are fresh.

Pat's column does show integrity ("say what you do and do what you say") - so they're not "silently deep-sixing comments" anymore, it's out in the open. Yes, you still have to read between the lines a bit to get the true policy, but it's a step forward in transparency to state that 'editing' of comments (via selective deletion, of whichever ones the editor wants) is occurring.

To put it into "George Washington and the cherry tree" terms - George isn't stonewalling on the cherry tree, he's saying "yes, I do cut the warped ones down, and which [other] ones I choose to cut down is none of your business."#
So do you criticise George for the act, do you express gratitude for the increased transparency, or do you criticise him for his conviction that using his own arbitrary standards is acceptable behavior? (and if the latter, do you use "high road" reasons ("public trust", "town square") or "low road" reasons ("you'll be left behind")?)

(as usual, we at NCFocus are prolific with questions, less so with answers)

For reference,
The Union's written comments policy*:
Those submitting comments to articles will abide by the following guidelines:
  • No personal attacks
  • No profane or vulgar language
  • No racial, ethnic or religious slurs
  • No unlawful use of copyright material
All comments go to a moderator before being posted online. Sometimes, it may take several hours [for] a comment to appear online. Those not adhering to the guidelines will be deleted.
So how does this bear on the deleting of civil comments -
- does asking someone a question that they don't want to answer constitute an attack?
- or did I make an error of logic, in having assumed that "if sins, then delete" also meant "if not sins, then don't delete"?

The former question brings to mind an old Scott Rosenberg quote:
...The value journalists continue to provide in a 'disintermediated,' Net-enabled world -- when they are doing their jobs right, of course -- is to continue to ask public figures the uncomfortable questions that they won't choose to answer on their own.

Monday update, re George Washington metaphor: Keep in mind that George's much older brother is standing on a nearby grassy knoll, thumbs hooked in his belt, within range of the proceedings.*


Russ Steele said...


My comments on Pat's Column are posted on my blog. I noted that many of my comments with links to my blog went in the editorial trash bin. It appears that bloggers are not welcome.

I am starting a campaign to get more bloggers started and online so we have enough for a blog swarm it is when needed.


Anna said...

(Permalink to Russ's post)

I guess "co-opt your community's blog scene" is no longer The Union's strategy.
(and neither is "Give readers a behind-the-scenes look at the news" nor "Make sure they can comment" :-)

Anna said...

A June 2006 sequel here; still don't have clear answers.