A few days ago, Jack McElroy wrote a brief post explaining why the KNS shut down comments on the story about the County Commissioner caught in a sex act with another man in a public park.
It wasn't bias or selective compassion that prompted us to disable comments on that story. The fact is, we have learned that some subjects bring out the worst in comments. In our ongoing efforts to raise the level of civility in our comments, we have decided to be more aggressive in controlling these forums. That includes disabling stories that are sure to be trouble. Given the subject matter, if we had opened up the Ownby article to comments, we almost immediately would have been deleting many of them.
Katie Granju, a fellow blogger and friend, has had some experience with the frequently harsh comments thrown around in the KNS moshpit, and wrote a reply to McElroy, asking that the KNS let its readers know what the standards were for closing comments.
If the newspaper is going to offer varying levels of protection from public commenting for each story it publishes online, it’s clearly time for the newspaper’s management to explain in detail to the community it serves what the criteria are for deciding which level of protection each story will get. How is this decision made, exactly, and who makes it? Does E.W. Scripps provide guidelines to its newsrooms in this matter, or does each E.W. Scripps newspaper -including the Knoxville News Sentinel – get to create its own guidelines? Where are the guidelines published for newsroom staff? Do they receive any training in making this decision? Or is it actually the case that there ARE no fairly, universally applied guidelines directing which stories get online comments disabled and which do not, and that its simply a personal judgment call by whichever News Sentinel editor happens to be around when a particular story is published online?
Of course, it is highly doubtful that the KNS will publish the standards they use to determine which comments are removed and when to close a story to comments because, as Katie suggests, there most likely are no standards. They are going by a gut feel for the tome of the comments. The problem with that approach is that if you have sympathy for one side or the other of the subject, your gut will react accordingly, and you will let some comments stand that support your side that you would otherwise ban.
That's not right.
That being said, and understanding that the KNS will probably never publish a list of standards controlling comments, I do have to say that I like what they did today.
There was a hit-and-run accident last night that took the lives of a young woman whose car was stalled on the side of the road and the middle aged man who had stopped to help her. Making the story even more tragic, the young woman was seven months pregnant. You would think that the comments on a story like this would be filled with expressions of sympathy for the family, and for the most part, you would be right. But there always seems to be one guy, one commentor who will take any story and twist it to fit their agenda. Like a member of the Hillsboro Baptist Church, this person has no respect for a family's grief or pain; he is just out to make his point, and is perfectly willing to do so using another person's tragedy.
Their heartbreak is his stock in trade.
In this case, the asshole (sorry, no other word fits) uses the handle TNRiverCaptain, and his comment tried to link the accident to a nearby house that he alleges is a drug house, specifically dealing in pot. In a later comment, and in response to questioning, he actually posts the address of the house. Keep in mind that since the police did not have a suspect in custody, or know the identity of the driver, there was no evidence at all that alcohol or drugs contributed to this accident. But TnRiverCaptain was determined to make his point, using the blood of two victims, three if you count the baby, without regard for the feelings of the families who lost their loved ones.
The KNS deleted his more egregious comments, and when he grew more heated, closed the thread.
But they did something else that I think is a good idea. Rather than blanking out comments altogether, they let the acceptable ones stand, including some of the responses to TnRiverCaptain. That gives the reader enough information about why the thread was closed down that they aren't left with more questions without answers.
It's not the same as publishing standards, but it is a start.
Incidentally, the KNS has a policy for printed letters to the editor. They must be signed, and you must leave contact information so they can verify that you actually wrote the letter. Anonymity is not an option.
I think they need to adopt the same model in their comments section. Most of the bullies and slime bags in the comments section hide behind fake user names. Comfortable and safe behind their little wall of immunity, they sit back and spew venom they wouldn't dare say face to face with other people. Their cowardice is masked by anonymous bravado. They know they will never be called to account for their words, so they write the most vile things, scraped from the sludge that fills the the bottom of their soul.
A little sunshine would go a long way towards drying up the cesspit. People who post under their own names are forced to remember that they are accountable for what they say. It is a restraining influence and raises the tome of the conversation.
And before you ask, just like here on my blog, when I comment, I use my name, so I do practice what I preach. You are welcome to go over to the KNS and type in rhailey931 and you will be presented with the full list of my comments, stretching back over the last several years. If I'm not willing to put my name on it, I won't say it.