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Keeping it civil: Managing online comments at the Toronto Star Webinar for the Canadian Newspaper Association Wednesday October 8, 2008 Neil Sanderson.

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Presentation on theme: "Keeping it civil: Managing online comments at the Toronto Star Webinar for the Canadian Newspaper Association Wednesday October 8, 2008 Neil Sanderson."— Presentation transcript:

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2 Keeping it civil: Managing online comments at the Toronto Star Webinar for the Canadian Newspaper Association Wednesday October 8, 2008 Neil Sanderson Assistant Managing Editor – Digital The Toronto Star

3 2 Outline 1.Background to commenting at the Star 2.The Star’s approach to moderation 3.Moderating policy 4.Managing the moderating process 5.Issues and lessons learned 6.Questions and discussion Intro

4 Background

5 4 The Toronto Star invites reader comments on most content on: thestar.com healthzone.ca parentcentral.ca yourhome.ca wheels.ca and on all our blogs, which are located at thestar.blogs.com Background

6 5 We're still rather new at this Star blogs have always had commenting but commenting on other content (stories, columns, editorials, reviews) has been running for just a few months Background

7 6 Our goals for commenting Encourage and promote freedom of speech Create a safe place for people to express their views (a place of "civil discourse") Add value (information, experience, informed opinion) to our content Foster communities of interest among readers Background

8 7 At the same time, we wanted to: Minimize risks to the Star's reputation or "brand" Minimize legal risks for the Star For example… “I'm involved in a very bitter divorce case involving a spouse who has committed theft, fraud and forgery against my former employer, the same in a family business, brainwashed my children against me and I blog about the bias shown in family court. I am writing a book about it…” - a comment submitted to thestar.com, using a real name Background

9 8 Isn't there legal protection for comments? We concluded that there is no legislated protection for user comments on Canadian websites. Our legal advice was that the situation in Canada is, at best, untested. And that there was a significant risk that an online publisher could be found liable for defamation. Defamation is the most obvious risk, but there are many other legal risks that caused us concern. Disclaimer: this webinar should not be considered legal advice! Background

10 9 The ideal comment? A comment posted recently on thestar.com I'm a Conservative and I like Dion, just not as a party leader. I think he’d be a nice man to know. He probably would be a good professor too.Hell, with his knowledge and inside know-how, he'd probably even be a good head of the Privy Council (the bureaucracy that works with the PMO). But all of those things do not make him Prime Ministerial material. Canada needs all of its political parties to be strong, to offer differing opinions and to keep each other honest. I would suggest that a minority government is superior to a majority for this reason, but only if all of the leaders are strong. Mr. Dion is not. The Liberals need to spend a few more years in the wilderness and rebuild under a strong leader, and then come back and challenge the Conservatives. This is what makes democracy strong. Mr. Dion needs to lose big for this to happen. Background

11 The Star’s approach to moderation

12 11 Commenter and publisher have responsibilities 1.Commenters must be registered 2.Commenters must follow the Star’s rules 3.All comments are screened (moderated) before publication 4.Moderators are specialist staff The Star’s approach to moderation

13 12 1. Commenters must be registered Simple signup process, no demographic information requested Users create a unique username and specify a password Users provide an address, which is automatically verified Username and password are valid for all sites A username may be rejected if it is potentially offensive or misleading The Star’s approach to moderation

14 13 2. Commenters are bound by rules The Star’s approach to moderation Put simply: Stick to the point. Do not copy material from other sources, except in brief quotes, with the source acknowledged. Vigorously debate the ideas, but avoid personal attacks. Do not make comments that are threatening, defamatory (for example: alleging criminal activity by an individual), obscene, profane, contain hate speech or degrade others. For full text and links to other documents, visit thestar.com/commenting

15 14 3. All comments are screened before being published Comments that do not comply with our Terms and Conditions are rejected On rare occasions, a comment might be edited and then published We do not correct spelling or grammar, unless necessary for clarity A few bloggers handle their own comments The Star’s approach to moderation

16 15 Putting it bluntly The Star’s approach to moderation If you want to offer your readers the facility to comment, then you must adequately staff that facility or else cacophony can result (as it has in many cases.) Publishers who think that just because this facility involves computers, then it should operate autonomously and without staff moderation and supervision are deluded by the techno-utopian fallacy. -Vin Crosbie, US newspaper consultant in Digital Deliverance, November 10, 2006

17 16 4. Moderators are specialist staff Recruited for this role Trained Working shifts to cover seven days a week Based in the newsroom, next to the online editors An investment in content creation The Star’s approach to moderation

18 Moderating Policy

19 18 Commenting guidelines Moderating policy The Toronto Star reserves the right to review, edit, refuse or delete any comment. Here's how to ensure your comments get published: Stick to the point. Do not copy material from other sources, except in brief quotes, with the source acknowledged. Vigorously debate the ideas, but avoid personal attacks. Do not make comments that are threatening, defamatory (for example: alleging criminal activity by an individual), obscene, profane, contain hate speech or degrade others. If you see a comment that appears to violate these guidelines, please click on the "Offensive" link for that comment, and our moderators will review it. For full text and links to other documents, visit thestar.com/commenting

20 19 What gets rejected 1.Personal attacks 2.Advertising 3.Spam 4.Trolling (attempts to hijack the conversation) 5.Statements that are obviously untrue 6.Libel 7.Contempt of court (right to a fair trial) 8.Violation of intellectual property rights 9.Revealing confidential information 10.Stalking, threatening, harassment Moderating policy

21 20 What gets rejected, cont’d 11.Invasion of privacy 12.Impersonation 13.Discrimination and hate speech 14.Conspiracy and sedition 15.General illegal activity 16.Claiming to be an expert or purporting to give professional advice 17.Obscenity 18.Profanity 19.Way off topic (including lobby group spam) Moderating policy

22 Managing the moderating process

23 22 Finding good moderators Moderators were specially recruited We looked for web-literacy and enthusiasm for user- generated content They had posted comments on other sites, and understood the concept of “civil discourse” They are well-educated and well-informed, but are not journalists They had to pass a realistic moderating test Managing the moderating process

24 23 Training Moderators were given two full days of training Sessions with the editor-in-chief, public editor (ombudsman) and the AME-Digital. A half day devoted to legal issues, with lawyers attending Reference manual covers principles and practices “The hardest part about being a moderator would be reading non-stop for extended periods of time. I keep a bottle of lubricating drops for contact lenses by my desk, and usually need 3 or 4 caffeinated beverages per shift.” - a moderator at thestar.com Managing the moderating process

25 24 Moderation cannot be 100% reliable Many cases are not clear-cut Moderators may not understand the context of a comment It takes time to gain consistency Even trained moderators can make mistakes “One of the hardest things to do is stay focused, especially when reading a large number of comments all on the same topic. You sometimes feel you're reading the same thing over and over again but you still have to give each comment the same attention.” - a moderator on thestar.com Managing the moderating process

26 25 Moderating improves with time Moderators sometimes ask for a second opinion from an editor They share their tricky decisions with the rest of the moderating team We are all learning from experience Managing the moderating process

27 26 Our readers help us too Readers can alert a moderator if they think we've published something unsuitable We post an address where readers can contact the moderators On occasion, reader feedback has prompted us to remove a comment Managing the moderating process

28 27 Customer service There is a link to Commenting Guidelines on every page… …which in turn links to the full Terms & Conditions and Privacy Policy We have a page of Frequently Asked Questions about commenting Moderators help readers with problems using the service We use boilerplate responses whenever possible, and point readers to the FAQ Personal service is offered in exceptional situations Managing the moderating process

29 Issues and lessons learned

30 29 Commenting is popular! Commenting “took off” right away, despite virtually no promotion Number of comments submitted is growing at 10% per week Number of registered commenters is growing at 50% per month This created a heavy workload for moderators It became hard to keep response times reasonable Issues and lessons learned

31 30 Coping with high volume Unequivocal rules, clearly communicated Avoid “me too” comments that add no new information, by offering an agree/disagree option on each post Moderators do not debate with readers, either via comments or by , but provide basic customer service Commenting is not enabled on crime and court stories, utility items (e.g. pointers or promos), letters to the editor Commenting can be closed if there is a large number of similar comments already published Use efficient comment administration software Provide fast computers for moderators Add more moderators? Issues and lessons learned

32 31 Most commenters seem to accept the Star’s moderating model Some even ask us to be stricter They seek clarification of the rules, to ensure that their comments will be published However, there are occasional complaints of “censorship” – from both left and right Often the “censored” comment hasn’t been rejected, it is still in the queue to be reviewed Complaints can be sent to the Moderators and/or to the Public Editor Profanity has been rare Rejection rate has been consistent (10-12%) Issues and lessons learned

33 32 Usernames can be a headache Celebrity names Offensive names Mischievous names (e.g. “Toronto Star”, “Tor Star”, etc.) People revealing too much information (e.g. using address as username) Issues and lessons learned Boilerplate message from moderators asks them to choose another name

34 33 Some unresolved issues When we publish a new version of a story, it doesn’t pick up the comments posted on previous versions. This is good and bad. Our journalists rarely respond to comments. Commenters may feel like they’re not being heeded. If we foster the respectful exchange of views for a while, could “the community” eventually become moderators? Should we permit people to create their own comment areas, independent of stories? Will commenting become so popular that we can no longer provide pre-moderation? Issues and lessons learned

35 34 What could be next? Some “low-risk” areas of the site could move to a "post- moderated" system where a moderator only looks at the comment if there has been a complaint from another user Commenters might earn the right (through good behaviour) to have their comments post-moderated Community members might moderate some areas Issues and lessons learned We don’t expect the explosive growth in comments to last forever. But if comments increase faster than our ability to moderate, we might consider techniques used at some other sites, such as:

36 35 Questions and discussion And now: your comments Issues and lessons learned


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