Marie Shanahan remembers the day with perfect clarity.
It was June 20, 2008, in Hartford, Connecticut. Community activists, the city mayor and state representatives protested unmoderated anonymous comment sections outside the Hartford Courant newsroom.
“That’s when I realized there is a serious problem here and we have to do something about it,” said Shanahan, who was a senior online producer at the time with the Courant.
The Courant’s comment system at the time was entirely anonymous, Shanahan said, and users could login multiple times under multiple pseudonyms.
“My bosses said do not touch the comments, leave them alone, you do not have time for that,” she said. “Underneath basically every story about crime in Hartford, people would say the most horrible, racist things.”
Shanahan, now an assistant professor of journalism at the University of Connecticut, presented a session Friday afternoon on different approaches to moderate online comments, leave them open for trolls or eliminate them all together.
Incidents like the one at the Hartford Courant have begged the question: Should journalists moderate the online commenters — who don’t operate with same ethical standards as journalists — or is it a violation of freedom of speech?
Some newsrooms have completely rid their websites of their reader comments. To attempt to make the conversations more civil, Shanahan and Natalie Jomini Stroud, associate professor of communication studies at the University of Texas at Austin and director of the Engaging News, offered some tips.
Here are some of the highlights:
- Reporters should continue to engage in the conversation after the story has been published online and on social media.
- Reporters should be the one to respond to comments, not the “generic” news organization.
- Weigh the pros and cons of responding to hateful comments directed at reporters, because it may just “feed the troll.”
- Add structure and guidelines to comment sections.
- When users make outrageous claims in their comments, ask them to provide links or citations to back up their statements.
- Uncivil comments should be deleted and banned. Readers should feel safe and comfortable.
- Answer legitimate questions.
- Point out positive comments that add to the conversation.
- Use “thoughtful” comment boxes design, which uses more formal language like “understanding” and “please” versus casual conversation like, “What do you have to say?”
- The term “respect” may get more response than the term “like” on social media.
- After your news organization makes a comment, don’t delete it. Be transparent.