Toward a more thoughtful conversation on stories

September 27, 2010

Visitors to this space may recall that I wrote this summer about the issues Reuters and other news organizations face in dealing with reader comments on stories.

I’ve become increasingly concerned about the quality of discourse in comments on news stories on Reuters.com and on other major news sites.  On some stories,  the “conversation”  has been little more than  partisans slinging invective at each other under  the cloak of anonymity.

I believe our time-challenged, professional readers want to see a more rewarding conversation—and my colleagues who lead Reuters.com are introducing a new process for comments that I believe will help bring that about.

The new process, which gives special status to readers whose comments have passed muster in the past, won’t address the anonymity issue, but I do think it is an important step toward a more civil and thoughtful conversation.

Let me introduce Richard Baum, Reuters Global Editor for Consumer Media, to tell you about the new process:

——————————————————————————————

Like many major news publishers, we’ve agonized over how to balance our enthusiasm for reader comments on stories with our belief that few people would benefit from a free-for-all. Most of our readers respect our request for comments that “advance the story,” by submitting relevant anecdotes, links and data or by challenging our reporting when they think we’ve fallen short of our editorial standards. It’s rewarding, sometimes even exhilarating, to see the way our audience builds on our coverage.

Where we struggle is with comments that we believe contribute nothing useful to the conversation. I’m not talking about obscenities and spam — we have software that aims to block the publication of those — but something more subjective. Most of our readers are business professionals who value their time highly. We believe they want comments that are as rewarding to read as they are to write. The challenge is how we deliver that experience in a way that doesn’t delay the publication of good comments nor use up resources that might be better deployed on other parts of the site.

I’ll explain how we’re tackling that shortly. But first, here are some examples of the type of comments that fall foul of our moderators:
– racism and other hate language that isn’t caught by our software filters
– obscene words with letters substituted to get around the software filters
– semi-literate spelling; we’re not looking for perfection, but people shouldn’t have to struggle to determine the meaning
– uncivil behavior towards other commentators; debate is welcome, schoolyard taunts are not
– incitement to violence
– comments that have nothing to do with the story
– comments that have been pasted across multiple stories
– comments that are unusually long, unless they’re very well written
– excessive use of capital letters

Some of the guidelines for our moderators are hard to define precisely. Mocking of public people can be fair sport, for example, but a moderator that has just approved 30 comments calling someone an idiot can rightly decide that there’s little incremental value in publishing the 31st. When we block comments of this nature, it’s because of issues of repetition, taste or legal risk, not political bias.

Until recently, our moderation process involved editors going through a basket of all incoming comments, publishing the ones that met our standards and blocking the others. (It’s a binary decision: we don’t have the resources to edit comments.)

This was unsatisfactory because it delayed the publication of good comments, especially overnight and at weekends when our staffing is lighter.

Our new process grants a kind of VIP status on people who have had comments approved previously. When you register to comment on Reuters.com, our moderation software tags you as a new user. Your comments go through the same moderation process as before, but every time we approve a comment, you score a point.

Once you’ve reached a certain number of points, you become a recognized user. Congratulations: your comments will be published instantly from now on. Our editors will still review your comments after they’ve been published and will remove them if they don’t meet our standards. When that happens, you’ll lose points. Lose enough points and you’ll revert to new user status.

The highest scoring commentators will be classified as expert users, earning additional privileges that we’ll implement in future. You can see approval statistics for each reader on public profile pages like this, accessed by clicking on the name next to a comment.

It’s not a perfect system, but we believe it’s a foundation for facilitating a civil and rewarding discussion that’s open to the widest range of people. Let me know what you think.

208 comments

Comments are closed.