Commenting 2.0

Established news sites rethink anonymous commenting. New York Times, April 11, 2010.

Anonymity appeals to worst instincts, Leonard Pitts Jr., March 31.

Death by moron: Anonymous commenting ends meaningful online interaction. SFGATE.COM.


Commenting conundrum

Online Journalism Review: Managing online comments

There is a rich history of pseudonymity in American opinion journalism. Alexander Hamilton, James Madison and John Jay wrote “The Federalist Papers” using the pseudonym “Publius,” but not without their publisher’s prior permission and knowledge of their true identities.

Printed periodicals grant pseudonymity but never anonymity.

Although the technologies of this medium evolve with the speed of “Moore’s Law,” the actual laws and liabilities governing the technologies evolve about as fast as the eponymous Gordon Moore can walk (he celebrated his 77th birthday this month). That is because the mechanical topic of technology and the human topic of ethics seemingly aren’t related to each other.

What I’m about to state might seem farfetched, but a decade of studying online news media leads me to fear that it is true. I fear that our industry has fallen under the spell of a techno-utopian fallacy that says we can foster a renaissance in journalism, civic involvement and comity simply by implementing new-media technologies.

Technology alone cannot foster a renaissance in journalism, civic involvement and comity. What we need are policies and practices to govern how our readers utilize these online technologies.

You are irresponsible to your publisher, readers, transparency, and journalism if you offer absolute anonymity and spontaneous publication in your comments sections. You might get away with it for a while, but not forever.

Washington Post ombudsman

Those in public life come to expect despicable and hurtful comments. Most have developed thick hides.

But for average folks who are out of the public eye and agree to be featured in The Post, brutal online comments can be unexpected and devastating. Post reporters say increasing numbers are expressing regret they cooperated for stories that resulted in vicious anonymous attacks.

For every noxious comment, many more are astute and stimulating. Anonymity provides necessary protection for serious commenters whose jobs or personal circumstances preclude identifying themselves. And even belligerent anonymous comments often reflect genuine passion that should be heard.

While some readers complain they’ve had it with unruly online conversation, thousands have joined it. In a typical month, more than 320,000 comments are made in response to Post stories, columns and blogs. That’s almost a third more than a year ago, said Hal Straus, who oversees commenting for the Web site. The growth is critical to The Post’s financial survival in the inevitable shift from print to online. The goal is to dramatically build online audience, and robust commenting is key to increasing visitors to the Web site and keeping them there as long as possible.

Media Shift on the law

In Collins v. Purdue University, 2010 WL 1250916 (N.D. Ind. March 24, 2010), a federal court held that under Section 230 of the federal Communications Decency Act (CDA) of 1996, the newspaper could not be held liable for the online comments posted by third parties.

Had the same accusatory third-party comments been published in the newspaper’s print edition — say in a letter to the editor or an op-ed piece — the newspaper might have had a much harder time avoiding liability. That’s because the legal rule in Section 230 of the CDA that is applicable to liability for online statements made by another party is much more favorable to a publisher than the legal rules applicable to liability for third-party statements in a print publication.

Protection goes beyond liable.

Thus, in Green v. America Online [PDF] (3d Cir. 2003), an online provider was protected from liability for damage to a user’s computer that was allegedly caused by another user’s malicious transmission of a “punter” signal in an online chat room.

Online providers have also been held immune from liability for the acts of sexual predators who contacted underage victims via their services (Doe v. MySpace [PDF] (5th Cir. 2008)) and from liability under civil rights statutes for religious harassment by users (Noah v. America Online (E.D. Va. 2003)). The online bulletin board Craigslist has been held immune under Section 230 from a local sheriff’s claims that the service is liable under public nuisance laws for causing or inducing prostitution as a result of its “erotic services” listings. Dart v. CraigsList [PDF] (N.D. Ill. 2009)

It was the stated goal of the U.S. Congress in enacting Section 230 of the CDA to “offer a forum for a true diversity of political discourse, unique opportunities for cultural development, and myriad avenues for intellectual activity.” That goal has certainly been achieved, but the diversity of discourse, cultural development and intellectual activity that is supported by Section 230 is accompanied by a significant amount of objectionable content in the form of defamation, vitriol and hate speech.

Four more classes!

Terrific promotional and interactive ideas last Wednesday.  Our final class sessions will focus on continued content development, particularly advocacy blogs; and interactive marketing. Here are the class activity plans and assignments through our last meeting, Wednesday, May 26.

Monday, May 17

Due today:

New content: Stories, rewrites, video

Interaction report: One to two pages describing your commenting and interactive experiences promoting the site.


Edit and post new content.

Discuss commenting immersion

Discuss and implement design changes


Interaction report: One to two pages describing your commenting and interactive experiences promoting the site.

Blogs: Report and write 200 to 400 word blogs or create a video that divulges something new and uses interaction.

ASSIGNMENT DUE MONDAY, May 24: Read the following.

Get tough on anonymous comments, Online Journalism Review 2006.

Online readers need a chance to comment, not abuse, Washington Post, April 2010

The law: The Communications Decency Act of1996 shields newspapers from liability for online comments, pbs.or/mediashift, May 2010

Drawing specifically  from these readings, the Pew participatory news study, your class experiences and personal experiences, write no more than 1,000 words on one of these two topics:

  • Anonymous online commentary is the death of American civic culture
  • Anonymous online commentary is the lifeblood of American civic culture

Wednesday, May 19


Blogs: Report and write 200- to 400- word blogs or create a video that divulges something new and uses interaction.

Interaction report: One to two pages describing your commenting and interactive experiences promoting the site.


Edit and post new content

Discuss commenting experiences


Blogs: Report and write 200 to 400 word blogs or create a video that divulges something new and uses interaction.

Anonymous commentary paper

Monday, May 24


Blogs: Report and write 200 to 400 word blogs or create a video that divulges something new and uses interaction.

Anonymous commentary paper


Edit and post new content

Discuss commenting experiences


Assess Deadbeat Illinois. Produce a written evaluation of up to 750 words of the entire site and specifically, your contribution to it.

Wednesday, May 26


Deadbeat Illinois site assessment


Discuss site assessment

Pizza @ ???

May 12 class

Is this news?

Due Wednesday, May 12: Evaluate each interactive news item.

New York Times Guantanamo docket

New York Times Faces of the Dead

APM’s Budget Hero.

New York Times Word Train

Reference the Pew study, our class discussions and other pertinent sources to answer these questions:

What ethical issues does this presentation raise?

What audience would it appeal to most? Least?

What alternative ways could be used to relate the same information to audiences?

Which do you like best?

May 10 class

Due Monday, May 10

New stories: Original and rewrite

Site interaction plan: Use ideas from the Pew participatory news study to articulate specific improvements that will increase participation on our Deadbeat Illinois page. Your one-to-two page action plan may presume money is no object. Ideas should demonstrate your knowledge of the Pew findings and include some options we could implement on our site

May 3: Embracing interactivity

No class Monday, May 3.

Assignment due Wednesday, May 5:

  • At least one originally reported story on delayed payment impact.
  • At least one attributed and linked rewrite.
  • Read the following linked stories about interactivity and be prepared for a quiz and discussion on the readings.


Interactive journalism means actively inviting, encouraging and responding to readers.

First, understand the participatory news consumer. :This Pew Center study shows how news consumers now expect a social experience as well.

That means things don’t always go as planned.:Nieman Journalism Lab interview explains how experimentation is vital to interactive journalism.

So contemporary Web journalism initiatives require flexibility, no more so than at the nation’s most staid newspaper.

10 ways to reinvent journalism from former Gatehouse media VP.

Flunk day

Enjoy this beautiful spring day. You get a two-day repreive on Deadbeat Illinois reporting and rewrites until Wednesday.

Have fun.

Wednesday, April 28 class agenda

Project updates

Due today: Original reported story(ies), a Web rewrite.

Reporting progress: What did you learn? What new questions do you have?

Next content: stories and videos.

Site development: What’s missing?

Site promotion: Reaching out to other sites. Launching our interactivity plans.

Monday, May 3

We will not meet. Regular story deadlines still apply, and you’ll begin our study of the interactive reading experience.