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:

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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

We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see http://blogs.reuters.com/fulldisclosure/2010/09/27/toward-a-more-thoughtful-conversation-on-stories/

I took the time and agreed to share my yahoo information with rueters in order to post and I’m looked down upoon because its my first comment. gee I hope I earn enough points so I can state my opion. sorry that new commenters aren’t worthy, maybe if we only use your website and build up enough comments on articles that we don’t really care about we will have enough points to be able to make a comment, great system hope it works out for you.

Posted by jimmyshine | Report as abusive

I support your decision on all points. However, I will be looking for fairness on your part to differing points of view, even the ones to which I’m opposed. If you appear to favor one over another, that will affect my opinion of Reuters as a news source. As you know, you have a responsiblity as journalists to be fair and impartial. I trust you will be faithful to your calling.

Posted by Josorr | Report as abusive

A VIP preference for commenting smacks of censorship. It’s one thing to eliminate comments that are not tasteful but when it’s clear the comment is civil and informed -why the delay? In the end you’ll end up loosing some of the most interesting people
who come to your site.

Posted by LACarlson | Report as abusive

I do not consider this to be a coincidence.

While you seem to have “loosened up” somewhat in terms of your heavy censorship, on some other articles you clearly have a long way to go to achieve what I consider a reasonably balanced viewpoint.

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Posted by guestp | Report as abusive

This sound like what the demos want to do to freedom of speak

Posted by sderf | Report as abusive

At least if we post something and you deny it, do us the courtesy with a response as to why so that we may improve.

Posted by Missouriconserv | Report as abusive

If we want to solve our problems as a society, we must do so in true and full earnest. In doing so, always speak your heart and true feelings as they will never be considered a lie or unjustified, but rather the window in which you see things through. Those different perspectives are what form the greatest of society’s successes, and in their honesty, yield a guaranteed assurance of good will, nurtured through the heart, for the well being for all of mankind. God Bless

Posted by rainman96 | Report as abusive

By allowing the capital gains tax to increase, it seems baby boomers would be adversely affected since many of them have retirement accounts invested in the market. I’m thinking we would’nt be in this pickle if the government had not spent so much in the first place. By allowing the government to collect more revenue without making them accountable for they’re spend seems like an act of stupidity “by the People”, which is what politician have come to expect from us. Now they’re pissed because “we the People” are paying attention.

Posted by Publuis | Report as abusive