Monday, August 17, 2009

Toothy McDumbbell

I'm back! And a touch annoyed. I actually almost blogged about the following topic while I was away, although, before departing on my trip I made a vow to myself to do as little work as possible so as to relax.

The source of my irritation came in the form of the Bee's comment section which should come as little surprise seeing as how the Bee's comment section can be pretty dang annoying. Here's my specific beef....

Last week the Bee reported on my friend and colleague Kim Curry-Evans's decision to step down from her post both as director of 40 Acres Gallery as well as from the mayor's recently formed art panel. This information in itself was dismaying given that I have great respect for Kim and the contribution she has made to our local art community. I also know that she relocated from Arizona to take her position with 40 Acres so it will be hard to know whether or not she will stay in Sac.

After reading the Bee's coverage of this news item I began following the comments on the story and that's when I got pissed. Of the 140+ comments on the article close to %80 of the negative comments were written by folks who admit to not knowing Kim or being unfamiliar with her gallery. Surprisingly, that didn't stop many of them from criticizing her both personally and professionally going so far as to speculate on her sexual orientation in some cases.

It blows my mind that the Bee publishes these comments. While riding in the car together for untold hours the Ol' Man and I discussed this issue at some length and determined the following about the Bee's comment section:

A. In an informal way the comments function as letters to the editor which could be okay except(!)....

B. Unlike letters to the editor which feature the name of the author these comments are written anonymously. As we all know from reading blogs the ability to post anon brings out the worst in people.

C. The Bee's disclaimer at the top of the comments section suggests that a moderator weeds out offensive comments for hate speech etc, however, I noticed several that shouldn't have made it past this moderation including one where the mayor was referenced as "Toothy McDumbell." There is, however, a feature where one can go in and flag comments for the types of things the Bee claims to moderate. Is the moderation they speak of supposed to come in the form of reader objections? Are these comments now self-legislated?

D. Furthermore in the moderation of these comments - if they are in fact moderated - why aren't those which admit to a lack of familiarity with the subject deleted? What relevance does a comment made by someone unaware of the article's subject have? In that regard the Bee is simply publishing a warrantless insult.

E. I've seen these insensitive comments follow both upbeat and serious articles alike. A few years ago I read a piece about a guy who collects picture frames which I found pretty interesting and the comments that followed critiqued the man's sanity in a pretty cruel manner. Sadly, the link to that article has expired.

While I have complained about the Bee's comments before this is the first time I've seen someone I know talked about in this way. It goes without saying that these comments are undeserved and I have to say that the result of comments like these would make one reluctant to receive press from the ol' Bee.


Anonymous said...

You know, it seems that most of the comments on the Bee's site violate their "terms of use" which is basically "play nice." I don't think that these terms could really stop someone who is the subject of an article from suing them and winning because ultimately they are publishing slander on their website.


Jeff M. said...

From what I understand, the bee uses a computer program to filter out comments that include certain verboten words. In fact, I think I remember hecksac did a post once where she showed how silly this program was. You could get away with saying really racists things as long as you didn't use the word fruity-tutti or something.

Now this isn't really the bee's fault. No large news organization can afford to weed out all the trolls. Comment sections are NOT like letters to the editor. One, they cost almost nothing to produce in terms of time and effort. Two, comment sections work best (at least for the audience) when they run at the speed of IM chat.

Finally, I think the bee should probably disable its comment section on some stories (the death of children comes to mind), but this story is not one of them. This story is political. Curry-Evans basically re-opened all the speculation about kj's sex life and/or his business shenanigans, yet she refuses to actually spill the beans. There is going to be major pushback, and the bee would look like they were trying to squash that pushback if they were to close the comments down. IT would all resolve down to: why are you protecting this woman, what are you trying to hide?

Jeff M. said...

What if the bee lawyers argue in court that the defamation WAS slander (spoken words) and not libel (written words), thus a comment section must be considered as something outside the domain of the editorial content? You could not hope to successfully sue the bee, for instance, if someone picked up copy of the paper in the street, read a story about Mr. X. and then slandered Mr. X to all of his friends and neighbors.

Ann Tracy said...

"Now this isn't really the bee's fault. No large news organization can afford to weed out all the trolls. " O Please... of course they could hire someone at minimum wage to do that... have the executives all take a 5% pay cut to pay for it...
I'm with Liv... they really need to clean up their act.

Anonymous said...

The argument that these are not really 'letters to the editor' is pretty weak. Comments on a news story are simply the 21st century version of Letters to the Editor.

As far as the argument that comments are spoken vs printed, again, a dumb idea. These comments are not made in private conversation- they are written in a public forum and published by the Bee on their website.

Whether or not it's technically illegal, it's still unethical. The Bee created a forum which invites exactly these types of churlish responses, and could very easily dissuade abuse by requiring the comments' authors to use their own names- as they do in the letters to the Editor.

Poor form, Scoopy.


gee whz said...

OK, sorry I meant libel. But those words are on the Bee site and being hosted by the Bee's server, so they are in effect published by the Bee. And the Bee is responsible for them.

Liv Moe said...

Weeding out the Trolls would be simple if you followed a email confirmation process which required the writer to verify their identity before making the post.

If comment sections aren't like letters to the editor then what exact purpose to they possess? Honestly, with the exception of this article and a scant few others on the Bee's site I typically make a point of not reading the comments. If they are simply to exist as a dialogue conducted by anonymous readers about a specific news story what's the point? Especially when most of the comments are anonymous, slanderous, emotional, biased, and ignorant. Nine times out of ten there is nothing to be gleaned from reading those comments unless you're out to waste some time. In a technical sense I know exactly why they're there... to drive readership, however, I think it's a cheap way of going about it.

As for the scenario you presented to gbomb there is one crucial difference between Mr. X slandering a subject to his buddies and the Bee's comment section. In the Mr. X scenario the Bee isn't providing the platform on which to do the slandering.

Liv Moe said...

Ah ha! It looks like someone might have complained because the number of comments has dropped by 3. Weed, weed, weed.

Jeff M. said...

The slander vs. libel scenario is probably too clever by half, but I still don't see comment threads as analogous to letters to the editor. I'm looking at the two letters published in mm this month right now. One gives kudos to some of your writers, and one is Jerry Perry correcting some obscure point of rock history. Both were clearly picked for relevance and timeliness. In other words, they function like any other editorial content in the mag.

Now contrast that to the freewheeling, back-and-forth of any vibrant comment thread. Take hecksac's, for instance. How often does that thread stay on topic of what she posted? Do you hold beckler accountable when I write something you disagree with? No, you argue with me. To me, the only difference between sacbee and heckasac is that the former has a much larger market share of the sactosphere. I don't see a qualitative difference between the two sites that would require two different standards for their comment threads.

And even presupposing those two different standards, how do you enforce them in cyberspace. Ann suggests the bee could hire someone at minimum wage to exercise her editorial judgement on every comment before it is published, but not only would that be a very slow moving comment thread, the actual editors at the bee might start to really worry that their jobs were about to be outsourced.

Liv Moe said...

No, both letters were clearly picked because they were the only two we had last month. To date we've run every letter we've gotten unless the writer ask that it not be published.

"To me, the only difference between sacbee and heckasac is that the former has a much larger market share of the sactosphere. "

- I disagree. Beckler definitely polices the comments on her site when they become cruel or insensitive much the same way that I police negative or mean spirited comments on the MidMo blog or my own blog. My basic rule of thumb there is that if someone attacks me or the mag I let it go because I understand I'm doing something in the public eye thus inviting criticism. If someone makes a comment cruelly blasting the subject of one of our stories or blog posts I delete it in most cases.

Again, as I said previously and this is true of blogs as well... you eliminate the ability to post anonymously and suddenly the cruel comments become a lot less cruel.

Jeff M. said...

The Bee "very easily dissuade abuse by requiring the comments' authors to use their own names- as they do in the letters to the Editor."

And how is this enforced? Letters to the editor usually require a phone number, so the editor can call you and make sure you are legit (and even this doesn't work, as evidenced by the fact that special interest group form letters often get published on letters pages).

Should the bee hire someone at minimum wage to IM every commenter to ask them, "Is your name really Rumpelstiltskin McDoodledorf?"

fft said...

i'm no libel law expert, but am familiar with the subject for my job. web comments is an evolving area of law, but basically, as a paper, we're advised NOT to edit online comments, because once you start editing comments for things like insensitivity and idiocy, you become liable as a institution for libel laws--just like letters to the editor.

so, if you DON'T edit online comments, you aren't laible for the content, libelous or not. make sense? of course not!

fft said...

btw imho i wish curry-evans would have just laid it straight forward as to why she hates the mayor. i'm not going to post what i've heard, as i haven't really done any legwork to verfiy anything or whatever, but i assume it's true and, if that's the case, then it's a pretty scumbaggy situation.

Liv Moe said...

thanks for shedding some light on this subject fft, however, nonsensical the law governing online comments may be...

as for verification... i've taken online votes which require the receipt of a text message for verification. i don't think it would be impossible to have some system in place. really why does it need to happen at the speed of IM? again, in my opinion there is almost nothing of value in online news story comments. why should anyone care what a pack of anonymous chatters have to say about the news? 9 times out of 10 it's conjecture and speculation anyway. in the rare instances where something smart or insightful is said you usually have to wade through a sea of inanity to get to it.

Jeff M. said...

"really why does it need to happen at the speed of IM?"

I think you nailed it earlier: the comment section drives traffic to

And for the record, I dislike the bee comment section, too. I avoid it because it is over run with trolls. As LM said, it is nearly worthless as discourse as a result.

And speaking of trolls, did you all see this guy with a AR-15 at an Obama event?

Skipper said...

I know the BBC is something of a larger news provider than the Bee, but when you enter a comment on their site, you are forewarned that your comment may not appear, as they are briefly skimmed for relevance and balance of perspective. Anything personal mentioned appears only as a response to another commenter.

Of course they have governmental backing and deal with a global audience, but I see no reason why this cannot be carried out on a smaller scale.

Liv Moe said...

It's true. Plus, there are other news sites like the NY Times - again much smaller scale than the Bee - which disable comments on most news stories.

Anonymous said...

Jeff M. is right. Comment sections remain to drive traffic online. That's it. I attended weekly meetings at a daily newspaper to figure out how to drive more traffic to the Web site. Although my fellow reporters and editors hated the comment section, the paper maintained it because it was the biggest instigator for traffic. For larger news organizations, such as BBC and New York Times, failure isn't as imminent as for Sac Bee. More people are going to visit the the NY Times Web site because it's the NY Times. But if Sac Bee doesn't maintain online readership for the next three months, six months or year...adios! So, they're less likely to disable comments. Is it ethical? Not necessarily. Honestly, journalistic ethics have not caught up to the technology in this age of mass opinion. It's going to take a lawsuit to make that happen.