Online venom or vibrant speech?
Not so long ago, the only way to talk back to The Washington Post was to write a civil letter to the editor, with a verifiable name and address, or to contact the ombudsman.Now, click on “view all comments” at the end of a story, column or blog on washington-post.com and enter a new world that challenges long-held practices and that can unnerve some journalists and readers. The online comments are immediate, use only e-mail addresses as identification and can be raw, racist, sexist and revolting. Washingtonpost.com is one of the first major newspaper Web sites to include comments, which are linked to most stories and columns. The intent was to build reader loyalty by making the Web site “more of a conversation than just a lecture. We’ve started to build a community to talk about the news and not just read it,” said Jim Brady, washingtonpost.com’s executive editor. “Every (newspaper) Web site will have them before too long.”Complaints first came from the newsroom. Reporters don’t appreciate the often rude feedback, which I get, too. (A sample reader comment on my column last week: “I think we can all agree after reading Howell’s lame comments week after week that the Post should save money by eliminating her position entirely. She is worse than a dupe.” )The Web site draws about 4,600 comments a day. But not all readers are happy about this feature.Software on the site censors profanity. Personal attacks and “inappropriate comments” also are forbidden, though “inappropriate” is not defined. “It’s obviously subjective,” Brady said. “We have to make judgment calls about what’s an attack and what isn’t. It’s kind of like the old line about pornography: You know it when you see it.”If there’s a technical glitch – and there have been a few lately – readers get frustrated when they can’t post comments. Several readers have complained that the comment software prevents them from writing words that contain the letter combination “ck.” The software also blocks the use of punctuation marks such as parentheses, percent signs and quotation marks.Two important journalism values – free, unfettered comment and civil, intelligent discourse – are colliding. My two cents: Monitor the comments much more vigorously and use the old journalism rule: When in doubt, take it out.Deborah Howell, ombudsman for The Washington Post, writes for The Washington Post-L.A. Times News Service.