Sunday, December 16, 2007

The perfect storm gathers on reader comments at Herald.com

On October 29th I sent the following email to the Herald's new Ombudsman, Edward Schumacher-Matos.

Dear Mr. Schumacher-Matos,

I was wondering why the Herald continues to tolerate hateful comments on the herald.com web site. Take a look at the following:

http://pod01.prospero.com/dir-app/acx/ACDispatch.aspx?webtag=kr-miamitm&action=message&msg=16057

Is it journalistically wrong for the Herald to moderate comments using some minimum standard?

Perhaps removing the anonymity of the commenters will raise the level of civility and the quality of the discussion.

It's a shame that the comments section on important news stories has become a repository for insults and something to be avoided rather than read.

What are your thoughts?

Henry Louis Gomez
The comments I referenced were attached to an article about a prominent Miami attorney, Joe Zumpano, who located and helped facilitate the rescue of a group of Cuban refugees. Many of the comments were blatantly anti-Cuban and simply there to inflame rather than impart any sort of perspective to the situation.

On November 4th I posted about a Herald piece that reported complaints lodged by the NAACP about racist reader comments. At the time, the paper's executive editor, Anders Gyllenhaal, was quoted as saying the following:
Gyllenhaal said the newspaper takes a number of steps to monitor and shape the tone of comments while still allowing ''the kind of wide-open debate'' that online postings enable.
Here at Herald Watch, I challenged that assertion:
Gyllenhaal's statement is a lie. Racist and tasteless comments are the norm at Herald.com.

[...]

I think the real issue has to do with money. You need to pay someone to sit there and moderate comments. You also need to have a policy that's clear as to what's acceptable and what's not. The Herald has shown an incredible unwillingness to commit to a coherent online strategy...

During the early hours of Monday November 26th, pro football player Sean Taylor was shot in his Miami-area home and subsequently died. The Herald articles written in the aftermath of the murder were magnets to precisely the kind of comments I challenged the Ombudsman about a month before.

About that time, someone began posting comments to the Herald's articles using my name, Henry Gomez. Needless to say I didn't like the idea that someone might be confused and think I actually was the author of those comments. I was asked by an acquaintance and my own mother if the comments were mine. Naturally I followed the protocol to have the comments removed after the fact and also lodged a complaint to Rick Hirsch, managing editor for multimedia and new projects at the Herald. We reached an agreement that would prevent people from impersonating me, but that didn't solve the overall problem.

In a column today, Schumacher-Matos finally takes on the issue of anonymous and inflammatory reader comments and quotes me.

There are several things to note. For one it seems that Schumacher-Matos is finally taking a side in an argument, coming down in favor of some sort of controls to the comments section.
...as The Miami Herald feels its way forward, it can't shirk its responsibility to impose rules that benefit the overwhelming number of us as readers and as citizens.
But Schumacher-Matos mistakenly characterizes this as a battle between comment moderation and increased online readership.
The number of visitors to MiamiHerald.com in November was up 66 percent from the year before, according to Executive Editor Anders Gyllenhaal, and registration might slow or even temporarily reverse such strong growth.
There's a fallacious cause and effect argument here that somehow attributes the Herald's increased web traffic to unmoderated and anonymous comments. I suspect it has more to do with changing preferences of consumers who would rather receive their news for free and electronically rather than pay for a clumsy fishwrap. The most widely read blog I write for, Babalu, moderates comments and our readership has grown dramatically in spite of that. That's because people come to read what the contributors write not necessarily what the readers write. It's my belief that most Herald.com readers are not even aware of the reader comments and that many who are have stopped looking at them because their hateful and offensive nature. Basically, the Herald has abdicated control of part of its web site to a small band of bigots and liars.

In any case it seems that the situation, which the Herald should have foreseen and should have reacted to earlier has finally become unbearable:
The Miami Herald and its parent company, McClatchy, are working on requiring simple registration before readers can comment in the site. Features editor Shelley Acoca has just been reassigned to a new position as ''reader exchange editor,'' and one of her first assignments, says Hirsch, will be to study how better to monitor and encourage reader comments.
These are two basic steps that should have been taken some time ago. What a revolutionary idea: make sure that people are who they say they are and set a clearly defined standard for what is acceptable in the form of online reader comments similar to those used in publishing letters to the editor. How can the Herald accept all the increased web traffic, and the corresponding ad revenue without taking on the financial responsibility to control the quality of what readers will be exposed to?

Schumacher-Matos gets it right when he says:
What all this means is that The Miami Herald should do what The New York Times has recently done: Bite the budget bullet to hire editors to review comments before they are posted, especially for stories most likely to attract offenders.
Bite the bullet indeed. As the dead-tree version of the Herald shrivels and dies, Herald.com is going to have to be more forward-thinking because the online world is far more competitive. Whatever happens, I'll be watching.

1 comment:

Tio said...

I have noticed that Herald articles dealing with African Americans or Jews, when many racist comments appear, the Herald will remove the entire comments section on that article so no further comments can be posted. Yet, they do not do likewise for articles relating to Cuban Americans, and leave up the comments section for further racist comments to be added.