Online News Sites Prevent More than Foul Language and Hate Speech

Moderating online comments is about protecting journalism

By: Amanda Scott, Dec 17, 2018

News sites are constantly walking a thin line between encouraging public comment and discouraging the vitriol when it comes to moderating their comment sections.

“Constantly making judgement calls on other people’s utterances, sometimes by the dozens in stressful circumstances with uncertain boundaries, is draining,” Alan Taylor, senior photo editor of The Atlantic, wrote of moderating comments for 10 years. “My stomach always twisted in a knot of anticipation when I knew a subject I’d just posted might be even slightly controversial. (And I’ve learned that almost anything can become controversial.)”

Online news sites monitor comments for foul language; hate speech; personal attacks; obscenities; vulgarity; commercial promotion; spam; name-calling; and, incoherence. But beyond just prohibiting harassment, trolls and bullying, what more are the editors and managers trying to achieve?

While online comments can improve a news site’s journalism through furthering a story, offering a new perspective, or arguing a different side, it has been shown that comments can impact the way a reader interprets a news outlet’s journalism.

Paula Poindexter, journalism professor at the University of Texas at Austin, wrote for the Online News Association’s ethics of online commenting:

“If bullies and bigots take over the comment platform and use it for their personal playground, the public perception of the quality of your journalism will be threatened – even if none of your staff members is involved. One study showed uncivil comments polarize readers and change the way they understand a story.”

Although Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996 protects an online news site from being held liable for what a reader writes in the comments section, many news sites are still cautious about what is allowed in their comment sections for fear of controversy.

In 2012, The Guardian’s Readers’ Editor Stephen Pritchard wrote of the difficulties moderators face: differing perspectives and points of views.

“The problem here is that what to one person is ‘vigorous debate’ is seen by another to be a wounding gibe,” he wrote. “And the moderators can't win. If a thread on a controversial subject is left unattended, the more opportunity there is for things to get out of hand. But when they do act and sanction a user, they risk appearing biased in favour [sic] of the other side of the argument.”

Regardless of an individual news site’s motivation to moderate its online comments, they are too important to the future of journalism in a democratic society to “be left without thought as to their purpose and management,” Poindexter concluded.