u38rw9f7u38rw9f7BY JANE B. SINGER

Journalists today are in the process of working out what constitutes ethical practice in their role as "gatekeeper" or "moderator" of the public voice.

"We should just torture them [Guantanamo detainees] to death, grind them up, and feed them to the poor. Then again, would the meat be tougher if we tortured them to death?" [1]

"You must be a friggin illegal . Go HOME and stop popping out anchors [children born in the United States] and depleting our social services; taking up space in our schools and using the Hospital as your PCP [primary care provider]!!!" [2]

"This clearly biased, poorly informed, hash of ramblings belongs on a public toilet wall rather than in a newspaper." "You are a coward of the highest order." "You're a puerile, immature idiot." "you are a disgrace, have you nothing else better to do in your sad life than slag other people off. obvious you were rejected at birth." [3]

These are user comments attached to stories published online by, respectively, the Chicago Tribune, the Houston Chronicle, and Britain's Daily Telegraph. The first was a general remark; the second was directed at another user; and the third-actually four separate comments among, at last count, 212, most of them in a similar vein-took aim at a sports columnist. Find them disturbing? You can just imagine the ones that the moderators deleted.

Moderators are people-sometimes journalists, sometimes not, depending on the newspaper-responsible for reading through user postings and removing those they feel are just too horrendous to remain accessible. The fact that the comments above were published is a clue to the yuck factor of the ones yanked from public view. When media organizations decide to open up their content to user comment, they are interested in boosting both the volume and the duration of traffic to their Web sites. But journalists also have more starry-eyed notions involving public service, communal contributions to the social good, and the joys of deliberative democracy. "The vitality of the whole enterprise is in the debate," an editor at the Guardian in the UK told me.

"What makes it exciting is the range of voices," said another. Unfortunately, that "range of voices" doesn't run from "reasonable" to "wonderfully insightful." It starts much further down the scale, somewhere in the vicinity of "breathtakingly offensive and probably libelous, too." And on the way up, it passes through such checkpoints as "inaccurate," "inane," and "irrelevant."

So as much as the notion of censorship makes most journalists' skin crawl, they find themselves having to do it when they take on the role of comment moderator. Maybe John Milton felt the same way when, within five years of penning a ringing endorsement of free speech in Areopagitica, he became Cromwell's press licenser. Then again, Milton argued convincingly that he acted in the public good an in accordance with his own principles, and historians examining his role in the context of the times and his actual duties have more or less forgiven him (Fackler & Christians, 1980). Time will tell if the parallels hold.

In the meantime, journalists today are in the process of working out what constitutes ethical practice in their role as "gatekeeper" or "moderator" of the public voice. (At some news outlets, the moderator job is outsourced. But journalists set up the guidelines and retain oversight over the contractors, as well as acting as final arbiters for contested items, so it amounts to much the same thing.) In some ways, that gatekeeping role is shared with users, on whom journalists rely to flag abusive comments or even to rein in other users by posting admonitions within the comment thread. But ultimately, oversight of the conversation that appears under their byline and their employer's logo rests with the journalists, who must adapt old norms to fit this new, shared media space. Here is some of what they are deciding:

 Journalists feel they have a responsibility-to audiences, employers, and colleagues-not to let the online conversation get completely out of hand. Forgoing moderation altogether is an option that virtually everyone has rejected, largely for legal reasons but also for ethical ones. "There's a responsibility to maintain civilized discourse," an online journalist at the Guardian said. "It's a problem for everyone." Quality newspapers, in particular, see themselves as having a tradition of civility that is worth preserving. "A pure free-for-all doesn't, in my opinion, equal good. It can equal bad," said Martin Nisenholtz, the top online executive at The New York Times(Hoyt, 2007). Smaller news organizations embedded in the communities they cover share his view. As a local British newspaper journalist wrote in response to a questionnaire item on this topic in late 2008:

Properly moderated, the value of comments will help strengthen the quality of all content, and give additional power and thrust to articles and stories, whilst introducing interesting new dynamics of debate and discussion. By contrast, unmoderated discussion invariable leads to abusive retorts, personal attacks on other users or journalists, "flame wars" and poor quality comments, which can show our products in an extremely negative and unprofessional light.

And egregiously outrageous comments are the easy bits. Far harder to address than matters of basic civility are other "quality" standards that practitioners see as constituting ethical journalism. Such standards involve, for instance, accuracy, honesty, and bias. People who leave comments are "selective in their interpretations, and they'll make claims that need no basis in fact," a Guardian editor said. "There is a risk you will just unleash a free-for-all for people with axes to grind or who only have a partial view of [the] situation," said a journalist at a community paper in Britain. Or how about the UK Times Web site user whose comments implied that he was the head of human resources at a well-known company-which he wasn't?

Journalists told me they feel responsible for such ethically problematic content-an obligation they fear they cannot actually meet, leaving many with considerable angst about user contributions in general. Reading and assessing every comment is a virtually impossible task, much less verifying constantly morphing online identities or doing any serious fact-checking. Large newspapers get hundreds of thousands of comments a month; smaller outlets get fewer comments but also have fewer resources to deal with those they do get. Another local UK journalist said contributions from users were "great in theory-but in practice, we barely have enough staff to get the paper out, let alone monitor [user material] and make the most of it."

 Keeping users from wandering off on tangents is a different sort of challenge. It requires a judgment call not only about the nature of the comment-is it really off the original item's topic, or might it only seem obscure to the journalist while making perfect sense to the user?-but also about how best to serve the greater good. Would other users prefer that those who digress be herded back on track, or would they rather let the conversation wander into new territory? As only a small fraction of Web site readers actually make their voices heard (Nielsen, 2006), it's very hard to say. "Do you go in as an editorial member, and try and shift the debate back? Or let it organically come back on its own?" a Guardian copy editor wondered. "People don't like their comments being deleted, but at the same time, the quality of the debate isn't going to be there if you've just got this whole ream of comments that are just not contributing anything."

 Long-standing norms of fairness and impartiality also take on new importance for journalists wrestling with such judgments. Journalists feel a need to be even-handed moderators. This is partly a self-defense mechanism; charges that they are biased in what they write would be exacerbated if they appeared also to be biased in what they allowed users to write. "As soon as you become a personality as a moderator, then there's room for complications," said a senior moderator at the Guardian. "If someone is out to make trouble, they can throw things back in your face."

If many decisions related to moderation rely on a utilitarian rationale, journalists' reasoning here shifts to the need to find an Aristotelian middle ground in exercising new forms of power-to the need, that is, for moderation in moderating comments. "There's a perceived power imbalance," the same Guardian journalist said. "It is not just 'well, here are my words, and here are yours.' .it's 'you [the moderator] have the power to delete me [the user].'"

The judicious exercise of power also affects the desire to enable diverse voices to be heard-that tantalizing democratic promise of an open network. Nearly 80% of the local UK newspaper journalists responding to a survey last fall saw user contributions as a way to add diverse voices to the news product. "We tend to get very narrow and blinkered," said one, citing the potential for user contributions to provide "a wider perspective." A Guardian editor said user contributions fit perfectly into the national paper's philosophy: "We believe in diversity of opinion. We want lots of voices to be heard. That's precisely what we can do: We can make lots of voices, including ones we don't agree with, heard."

Issues related to appropriate use of power will be front and center in the coming months, by the way, as news Web sites add tools that enable moderators to highlight individual user contributions they consider especially worthy. Those items can then be given prominent display, for instance on an online section front or in the printed newspaper. This capability will make it easier for everyone to find the interesting, clever, or unusual perspectives that may be buried deep in a string of comments. And it moves journalists away from the hated role of censor, enabling them to be facilitators, to encourage and boost the visibility of cogent comments rather than discouraging-or deleting-the less so. But it also adds fresh pressures for the ethical application of this novel ability to apply "news judgment" to what users, rather than journalists or their sources, have to say.

 Consistency in the way power is wielded, an ethical issue closely related to fairness in the context of comment moderation, also counts. Web sites allowing user comments typically publish guidelines about what is acceptable and what is not. "We welcome debate and dissent," the Guardian says. "We actively discourage obscenity and mindless abuse." The New York Times warns it will not tolerate "personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence and SHOUTING." The Daily Telegraph says it removes personal abuse-"criticising an argument is fine, attacking the person making it is not"-libelous material and "racist, sexist and homophobic material and comments likely to incite religious hatred."

As the opening examples suggest, the guidelines do not necessarily stop anyone from publishing all this and more. But they do give journalists something to fall back on when they remove a comment from the Web site. Indeed, sporadically failing to do so is a major source of criticism. The Guardian's ombudsman said that inconsistency in moderation was one of the biggest complaints she received from users; the Telegraph's communities editor similarly emphasized the importance of making consistent moderation decisions. The Guardian's senior moderator said she was trying to ensure "we're as consistent as possible with our moderation. Otherwise you get the most vocal users managing to eachieve some slant in their favor."

 This last issue brings me to a final, quick word about the users' role in moderating one another. Many major news organizations have recently added software to their Web sites to enable contributors to build online reputations. For instance, an increasingly popular option is to give users the means to recommend a particular comment; USATODAY.com and nytimes.com are among a rapidly growing number of sites offering this capability. Here is an intriguing option for flipping censorship on its head: It focuses on "good" comments rather than "bad" ones,

and it moves that quality assessment away from the journalist and into the user community.

In the meantime, however, it is likely that journalists will continue to serve as the primary overseers of user contributions to media-affiliated Web sites. The best moderation would be none at all, but news organizations generally are unwilling to take their hands completely off the controls, potentially allowing conversations carried on under their byline or banner to run off the rails and turn into the proverbial train wreck. Instead, most are seeking to steer a middle ground and to be moderate in their moderating, in multiple senses of the term: trying to be fair, trying to discourage intolerant extremists, and trying in their own online actions to maintain as light a touch as possible.

Along the way, they are gradually coming to terms with the realization that much of what appears online-such as the comments that began this essay-would never be published in the print newspaper, much less air on television. But that is precisely the point: The online space is shared, and both creating and controlling content for it are collaborative exercises. The central ethical challenge for all the stakeholders is to make the collaborations work for everyone.


Fackler, Mark, & Christians, Clifford G. (1980). "John Milton's Place in Journalism History: Champion or Turncoat?" Journalism Quarterly 57 (4): 563-570.

Hoyt, Clark. (2007, 4 November). "Civil Discourse, Meet the Internet." The New York Times. Retrieved 10 February 2009 from: http://www.nytimes.com/2007/11/04/opinion/04pubed.html

Nielsen, Jakob. (2006, 9 October). "Participation Inequality: Encouraging More Users to Contribute." Alertbox. Retrieved 10 February 2009 from: http://www.useit.com/alertbox/participation_inequality.html


[1] Comment on: Martin, Deanna. (2009, 3 February). "Ind. Lawmakers: Don't Send Us Guantanamo Detainees." Chicago Tribune. Retrieved 6 February 2009 from: http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/chi-ap-in-xgr-guantanamo-no,0,7877172.story

[2] Comment on: Davis, Julie Hirshfeld. (2009, 29 January). "Stimulus Plan Seeks to Bar Illegals from Tax Credit." Houston Chronicle. Retrieved 6 February 2009 from: http://www.chron.com/disp/story.mpl/special/immigration/6236670.html

[3] Comments on: Henderson, Michael. (2009, 22 January). "Send in the Clowns-It's Another Episode in the Sad Saga of Manchester City." Daily Telegraph. Retrieved 10 February 2009 from: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/sport/football/leagues/premierleague/mancity/4308353/Send-in-the-clowns---its-another-episode-in-the-sad-saga-of-Manchester-City.html