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    Traditional Media Ready to Elevate the Conversation Online — with Moderation

    by Mark Glaser
    January 16, 2008

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    Major media sites have started to get the religion of audience participation, but there’s been one big hitch: How do you harness the audience’s knowledge and participation without the forums devolving into a messy online brawl that requires time-intensive moderation?

    Over the years, traditional media sites have tried forums, killed them, and tried them again, this time with more moderation. But still, the unruly aspect of online commentary continues to upset people, as the Hartford Courant’s public editor Karen Hunter recently railed against the “uncivil discourse” on her site’s comments, blaming it on anonymous commenters and calling for a requirement that people use their real names. Then Topix CEO Chris Tolles defended anonymous contributions, comparing unregistered commenters on Topix to those that register and found that while unregistered comments are slightly more likely to violate posting guidelines, three times of all comments came from unregistered commenters.

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    What has changed in the last year is that major media companies are no longer arguing over whether they should have comments under stories or blogs; instead, the debate is about how they should moderate them and even highlight the best ones in eye-catching editorial spaces. Many sites are embracing the concept of “news as a conversation,” and trying to create active conversations among reporters, editors and readers online. The New York Times released a more robust commenting function recently, where readers can recommend each other’s comments, and there are “Editor’s Selections” for the best comments in a thread. And last weekend BusinessWeek.com started highlighting one commenter per day on its home page, with a photo of the commenter.

    Jonathan Landman, deputy managing editor for digital journalism at the New York Times, told me he thinks a balance of positive reinforcement and negative reinforcement is the way to go in moderating online comments. He likes the way Amazon.com gives people special badges when they use their real name.

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    Jonathan Landman

    “You don’t have to moderate and say, ‘You have to give your real name,’ because you’re already taking down offensive or abusive stuff,” Landman said. “That’s negative reinforcement and we need techniques to give positive reinforcement [as well]. Giving your real name and getting recognized for that is one way. Another example is having the editor’s selections or having people recommend the better comments. So a mixture of positive and negative reinforcement techniques is the way to go.”

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    The Times has a special “moderation desk” to help all the bloggers and editors who are already moderating comments on their own blogs. Currently, all comments must be approved by humans before being posted on the site. Landman says that the team of four part-timers who were helping to moderate comments has already grown to 11, and he expects the Times to hire more people and train others to help out as comments expand onto other stories. While the Times might experiment with comments that aren’t pre-screened, he wouldn’t expect such threads in controversial subject areas at the outset.

    “I think quality is more important than quantity,” Landman said. “You have to create a space where the conversation is the kind of conversation that appeals to the people in your world. There are places where the conversation gets really ugly and people don’t go to the New York Times to get yelled at.”

    At BusinessWeek.com, comments are also filtered by people before being posted, though that might change as the volume of commenting goes up. BusinessWeek.com executive editor John Byrne told me the number of comments at the site was up 29% in 2007, and that the site is developing automated filters to help the human moderators. Byrne said his #2 goal for this year — after growing the site — is having the deepest, most meaningful engagement for users.

    “We are rewarding our readers who make comments on our site by going to the reader and saying, ‘We like what you’re saying and want to feature it in a prominent way, can you send us a digital picture of yourself so we can put it on the home page?’” Byrne said. “This is about elevating our conversation and giving credence to the idea that the web is a dialogue and not a lecture. The truth is that very few people are delivering on it, having reporters really engage with readers or elevating comments and saying, ‘This is as important as any story we have, any video we have, any audio we have.’”

    While Byrne doesn’t mind anonymous comments on the site, he wants to make sure that good commenters are rewarded by having their picture placed prominently on the site — making them as prominent as the authors or subjects of stories. Plus, he has plans to reward the best contributors at the end of the year with a special dinner with him and other top editors at the magazine. (I will be running a longer Q&A with Byrne in a future post on MediaShift.)

    Legal Immunity for Moderating Comments

    One of the big arguments in the debate over moderating online comments is that if you start to edit people’s comments before publishing them, you open yourself up to liability in defamation cases. It turns out that’s not actually true. The Communications Decency Act of 1996 was largely struck down by the courts, but one important part that remained, Section 230, protects online services from liability for people’s comments even if they are edited prior to publication. The only time a service might become liable is if editors change the meaning of the post and make it libelous.

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    David Ardia, a fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University and the director of the new Citizen Media Law Project (CMLP), wrote a great primer on liability and immunity under Section 230 on his blog at the CMLP. According to Ardia, the following online activities are provided immunity from lawsuits because of the law:

    > screening objectionable content prior to publication
    > correcting, editing or removing content
    > soliciting, encouraging or selecting content for publication
    > paying a third party to create or submit content, and even
    > leaving content up after being notified that the material is defamatory

    So with all those safe harbors — including for user-submitted content from the scene of breaking news — why have media companies been so wary of liability over online comments? Ardia told me it’s tough to change the mindset of traditional media folks, who are used to newspaper publishers being liable for everything that’s printed in their pages.

    “For people who grew up in another era, it’s a much different way of looking at things,” Ardia said. “In newspapers, the publisher is responsible for everything whether it’s a letter to the editor or a classified ad. That’s been the standard of liability for a long time. There’s a real learning process in the new liability terrain…You do see the courts showing discomfort because it doesn’t feel fair to them. There are these feelings amongst traditional news organizations that this feels strange and unfair. It’s taking some time to settle in.”

    Ardia says that sites that pre-screen comments have won all lawsuits in which they were accused of being liable for comments made by people in forums. There’s a pending case against hyper-local site iBrattleboro, with the plaintiff claiming that the site moderates comments and tries to make it a civil environment and therefore should be liable for letting a slanderous comment get through. Ardia believes that the site’s motion to dismiss the case against them — but not against the commenter himself — will be granted by the court.

    There are other legal issues that news sites must consider when allowing comments on their sites. Ardia recently reported on the Idea Lab blog that a Kansas University investigator got a search warrant to go through the Lawrence Journal-World newspaper site’s computer servers to get information on an anonymous commenter who gave his opinion about drugs being involved in a recent murder. The newspaper questioned the legality of the search warrant, and the investigator backed down. But Ardia is worried that law enforcement authorities will use search warrants to go on fishing expeditions at news organizations, chilling speech on online forums.

    What’s probably most interesting about this case is that after all the brouhaha over the search warrant, the original anonymous commenter came back to apologize online about the comment, saying “I would like to take some time to apologize for any misinformation.” Perhaps the person had anonymous-posting remorse?

    Where Do You Draw the Line?

    One of the biggest challenges with moderating comments is figuring out which comments to accept and which to discard — and how many hoops you force people to go through to join the conversation. While the New York Times and BusinessWeek both have editors check each post before publishing them, other mainstream news sites rely on Topix for automated and/or human moderation, or a mix of their own moderating systems before or after posting. Most sites will toss out obscene, libelous or personal attacks in comments, and sometimes will ban people based on their IP address.

    Scott Anderson is vice president of shared content for Tribune Interactive and pens the excellent Online News Squared blog. Anderson told me that Tribune allows each newspaper (including the Courant) to set its own commenting policy, but that he personally likes more open commenting systems.

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    Scott Anderson

    “I am not a supporter of registration or other prior-restraint gating processes that ultimately only hinder the conversation,” Anderson said via email. “Our role is to activate and engage the conversation, not stifle and control it. Our role is to open ourselves and our sites to all kinds of communities and all kinds of people — not just those who fit our demographic filters or don’t like to cuss or don’t get rambunctious or don’t sometimes just say stupid things just to make a point. We shouldn’t shut out those who discuss topics such as race and — gasp, sex! — and other controversial topics that we shy from in print or vanilla-cize and homogenize to the point of mushy yogurt.”

    Tribune is part owner of Topix and uses the startup to help run its newspaper-site forums in exchange for a revenue split from Google AdSense ads that run on those co-branded pages. Not surprisingly, Topix CEO Tolles agrees with Anderson about having looser moderation standards and not pre-screening each comment by hand. Topix has an automated system for screening posts ahead of time, and relies on users flagging problematic posts along with a staff of moderators.

    “The real issue here is that the Internet’s real mission is to empower many-to-many conversations,” Tolles told me via email. “The long-term play is thousands of conversations between the people in the forums, not an editorial opinion being foisted on them by a battery of editors. With regard to anonymity — it’s pretty much a misnomer. We know roughly the same about people who post anonymously, as we do about people who register with an email address, and can ban people either way. We’ve found roughly the same amount of abuse from both kinds of people, and all you’re doing with registration is making people jump through hoops. Bad people jump though hoops more or less as much as good folks, at least with regard to commentary.”

    Howard Owens, director of digital publishing at GateHouse Media, doesn’t think that sites should make deals to outsource their forums to Topix, saying “the last thing you want to do is turn over your commenting system to a vendor with an express intent of beating you in your own market.” While GateHouse does have some open forums, Owens told me he would like to “fix that” with registration systems and more moderation from journalists.

    “I’m a big believer in the conversation,” Owens said via email. “I believe the conversation makes us all smarter, when it’s a good conversation. The great, wonderful beauty of the Internet is that it enables everybody to join the conversation. In order for us to really benefit from the conversation, and not see it crushed by bad actors, [we need] to try and guide that conversation. I think there is a role here for journalists to play in elevating the expectations for that conversation…That’s the high ideal behind what I’m advocating, even as it flies in the face of the wide-open ideals of some digerati.”

    Owens, along with the Times’ Landman and BusinessWeek’s Byrne, all talked glowingly about reputation management systems, similar to the ones on eBay and Amazon in which people rate the quality of each other’s comments. Over time, the best commenters gain trust and the sites spend less time on filtering. On sites such as BusinessWeek.com and USAToday.com, those participants eventually gain not only credence but also visibility, with their comments highlighted by editors. Perhaps a reputation system with a mix of human and automated filters — and having positive and negative reinforcement — is the answer to that long-standing conundrum of opening up the conversation online but keeping it civil.

    What do you think? Should major news sites pre-screen comments, moderate them after they’ve been posted or use a combination of sticks and carrots for participants? What places do you feel welcome to comment and what keeps you from commenting? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

    UPDATE: Paul Massey in comments said that he thought the discussion about liability for comments was not taking into account foreign laws that might impact liability:

    Comments written in the U.S. which offend in another country may be subject to the defamation laws of another country where immunity may not apply provided reputation has been damaged in that country. Therefore a U.S. law analysis is shortsighted.

    Harvard’s David Ardia responded to me about that via email, saying that the risk of foreign litigation was actually pretty small:

    [Massey] raises a good point, but one that I think is of relatively little concern for journalism organizations that don’t have substantial assets outside the United States. There isn’t a clear test that courts will apply when faced with the question of whether to exercise jurisdiction over a foreign publisher on the Internet. Most courts have held that simply making something available worldwide — without more — is insufficient to subject publishers to jurisdiction outside their home country.

    Even if a court in another country were to exercise jurisdiction over a U.S. publisher and find liability, the plaintiff would still have to come to the U.S. to seek enforcement of that judgment against the U.S. publisher. U.S. courts tend to be reluctant to do so, especially if the judgment originated in a country that does not have free speech protections commensurate with the First Amendment.

    Large publishers that have assets in countries like France (which has Nazi memorabilia restrictions) or the United Kingdom (where defamation law is generally more favorable to the plaintiff) need to be cognizant of the possibility that a domestic court could exercise jurisdiction and hold them liable for the acts of their users. For most publishers in the U.S., however, the risk is quite small.

    Tagged: digging deeper forums online etiquette
    • Great post. I agree that a reputation system with a blend of human and automated filters, with positive and negative reinforcement, is probably the best answer. I especially like the idea of rewarding, for use of real names, and for quality of comments.

      2008 is definitely a make or break year for traditional media sites, as they try desperately to make up lost time and ground. A simple thing they can do to increase the number of comments is to allow commenters to submit their personal or business website along with name and email. The reward for a good comment ultimately is someone clicking on your name, which should link back to a website. Then others can find out who you really are, and where you came from.

    • I was one of four bloggers with whom the Plain Dealer and cleveland.com tried to collaborate for a political blog called Wide Open. It lasted about six weeks and you can see it still at blog.cleveland.com/wideopen.

      That effort involved no editing or filtering whatsoever. The four bloggers had been doing blogging for at least two years each when the project began. We were hired for that work we did and to produce the same. We moderated only the most offensive comments but allowed the commenters to express themselves freely. It was stressful allowing that, but it was real and different and debate-worthy most of the time.

      Please read my post here as to what I think about traditional papers re-applying all their filtering ideas to the online world. They continue to resist walking like ducks or blogging like bloggers in an effort to keep the two domains (their idea of journalism and citizen’s ideas of journalism) apart. This is a mistake.

    • What I read in what you’ve described is the newspaper industry’s attempt to continue filtering. That is not traditional blogging. And while that may be good for them to feel better in terms of keeping to a static notion of journalism ethics being set in concrete for all forms of news provision, millions of blogs demonstrate everyday that that is not what news consumers want – which is sometimes why they cancel subscriptions.

      The best blogs have authors that readers trust. It’s about community and allowing the reader to decide, once given all the info. Newspapers might be better off just saying, “You know what? we can’t do that – it’s not us” rather than trying to say that the way they insist on doing it is preferable and/or better. It’s different from blogging, but it’s exactly the same as what newspapers do in print: filter and moderate. On a blog – it’s the blogger doing that, and people only read it once they come to trust it. That’s how the best ones work, and there are many of them. Obviously a critical enough mass of them that an entire industry is trying to emulate that mass.

      Here’s my post about it.

    • dr. anonymous

      I am in favor of filtering if the site makes its policy on filtering available to the public.

      I am not in favor of rewarding people who use their “real names” (how is this possible to determine, anyway). It frees people to speak frankly on issues without fear of retribution from, for example, employers.

      Ethically, however, if you’re a public figure like a celebrity or a pundit, you should say who you are. But Joe Schmoe shouldn’t feel compelled to disclose who he is in order to get assigned an elevated level of respect.

      I think the comments tool for this blog is a good example of how to do commenting right.

    • Im not getting why any of this really matters. Do comments improve journalism? Do they make your audience smarter, and more well informed? If not, why publish them?

      I think this is a critical question, but one I never see asked or answered in these sorts of stories. Im troubled by the whole idea of comments, not because they dont sometimes contain insights or good information, but that in general I dont think they dont make us any smarter. Like normal human conversation, theyre full of inaccuracies, logical flaws, ad hominem, etc. I think comments appeal to our reptilian brains, not to our logic or reason. So what good are they? I dont know.

      I must admit a bias here, as I help run Public Insight Journalism at American Public Mediaan initiative designed to incorporate public input into actual journalism. But in general, commentingelevated by moderation or notdoesnt live up to the elements of journalism as I learned them. Its nice to give people a space to vent, but Im failing to understand how publishing comments actually helps our journalism. It may, its just that Ive seen no one really take on that question.

      That’s my comment.

    • Im not getting why any of this really matters. Do comments improve journalism? Do they make your audience smarter, and more well informed? If not, why publish them?

      I think this is a critical question, but one I never see asked or answered in these sorts of stories. Im troubled by the whole idea of comments, not because they dont sometimes contain insights or good information, but that in general I dont think they dont make us any smarter. Like normal human conversation, theyre full of inaccuracies, logical flaws, ad hominem, etc. I think comments appeal to our reptilian brains, not to our logic or reason. So what good are they? I dont know.

      I must admit a bias here, as I help run Public Insight Journalism at American Public Mediaan initiative designed to incorporate public input into actual journalism. But in general, commentingelevated by moderation or notdoesnt live up to the elements of journalism as I learned them. Its nice to give people a space to vent, but Im failing to understand how publishing comments actually helps our journalism. It may, its just that Ive seen no one really take on that question.

      That’s my comment.

    • Im not getting why any of this really matters. Do comments improve journalism? Do they make your audience smarter, and more well informed? If not, why publish them?

      I think this is a critical question, but one I never see asked or answered in these sorts of stories. Im troubled by the whole idea of comments, not because they dont sometimes contain insights or good information, but that in general I dont think they dont make us any smarter. Like normal human conversation, theyre full of inaccuracies, logical flaws, ad hominem, etc. I think comments appeal to our reptilian brains, not to our logic or reason. So what good are they? I dont know.

      I must admit a bias here, as I help run Public Insight Journalism at American Public Mediaan initiative designed to incorporate public input into actual journalism. But in general, commentingelevated by moderation or notdoesnt live up to the elements of journalism as I learned them. Its nice to give people a space to vent, but Im failing to understand how publishing comments actually helps our journalism. It may, its just that Ive seen no one really take on that question.

      That’s my comment.

    • Im not getting why any of this really matters. Do comments improve journalism? Do they make your audience smarter, and more well informed? If not, why publish them?

      I think this is a critical question, but one I never see asked or answered in these sorts of stories. Im troubled by the whole idea of comments, not because they dont sometimes contain insights or good information, but that in general I dont think they dont make us any smarter. Like normal human conversation, theyre full of inaccuracies, logical flaws, ad hominem, etc. I think comments appeal to our reptilian brains, not to our logic or reason. So what good are they? I dont know.

      I must admit a bias here, as I help run Public Insight Journalism at American Public Mediaan initiative designed to incorporate public input into actual journalism. But in general, commentingelevated by moderation or notdoesnt live up to the elements of journalism as I learned them. Its nice to give people a space to vent, but Im failing to understand how publishing comments actually helps our journalism. It may, its just that Ive seen no one really take on that question.

      That’s my comment.

    • Im not getting why any of this really matters. Do comments improve journalism? Do they make your audience smarter, and more well informed? If not, why publish them?

      I think this is a critical question, but one I never see asked or answered in these sorts of stories. Im troubled by the whole idea of comments, not because they dont sometimes contain insights or good information, but that in general I dont think they dont make us any smarter. Like normal human conversation, theyre full of inaccuracies, logical flaws, ad hominem, etc. I think comments appeal to our reptilian brains, not to our logic or reason. So what good are they? I dont know.

      I must admit a bias here, as I help run Public Insight Journalism at American Public Mediaan initiative designed to incorporate public input into actual journalism. But in general, commentingelevated by moderation or notdoesnt live up to the elements of journalism as I learned them. Its nice to give people a space to vent, but Im failing to understand how publishing comments actually helps our journalism. It may, its just that Ive seen no one really take on that question.

      That’s my comment.

    • Im not getting why any of this really matters. Do comments improve journalism? Do they make your audience smarter, and more well informed? If not, why publish them?

      I think this is a critical question, but one I never see asked or answered in these sorts of stories. Im troubled by the whole idea of comments, not because they dont sometimes contain insights or good information, but that in general I dont think they dont make us any smarter. Like normal human conversation, theyre full of inaccuracies, logical flaws, ad hominem, etc. I think comments appeal to our reptilian brains, not to our logic or reason. So what good are they? I dont know.

      I must admit a bias here, as I help run Public Insight Journalism at American Public Mediaan initiative designed to incorporate public input into actual journalism. But in general, commentingelevated by moderation or notdoesnt live up to the elements of journalism as I learned them. Its nice to give people a space to vent, but Im failing to understand how publishing comments actually helps our journalism. It may, its just that Ive seen no one really take on that question.

      That’s my comment.

    • The most important thing a news organization can do is join the conversation. Nothing improves the mood of a conversation more than when a real person listens, answers questions and follows up. Too many news organizations have comments and forums then leave them alone, and the readers turn on each other.

      I wrote a little more here about how comments are informing the reporting at The Post-Standard in Syracuse.

    • Im not getting why any of this really matters. Do comments improve journalism? Do they make your audience smarter, and more well informed? If not, why publish them?

      I think this is a critical question, but one I never see asked or answered in these sorts of stories. Im troubled by the whole idea of comments, not because they dont sometimes contain insights or good information, but that in general I dont think they dont make us any smarter. Like normal human conversation, theyre full of inaccuracies, logical flaws, ad hominem, etc. I think comments appeal to our reptilian brains, not to our logic or reason. So what good are they? I dont know.

      I must admit a bias here, as I help run Public Insight Journalism at American Public Mediaan initiative designed to incorporate public input into actual journalism. But in general, commentingelevated by moderation or notdoesnt live up to the elements of journalism as I learned them. Its nice to give people a space to vent, but Im failing to understand how publishing comments actually helps our journalism. It may, its just that Ive seen no one really take on that question.

      That’s my comment.

    • Doug

      I agree with Andrew.

      Reading the comments section beneath a NYT article does not add to my understanding of a story. It’s also a waste of my time, generally, because information in most comments is unreliable and adds nothing to the reporting.

      I think of it this way. On Saturday mornings, I take two papers, usually the Globe and the NYT, to the local pub where I eat lunch. Several neighbors come in with their papers, and we read and discuss stories that catch our interest. We leave the papers for others to read and discuss.

      This is not an organized ‘meet-up’ or a formal exercise in ‘community building.’ For me, this is how journalism, and newspapers in particular, help keep me a part of my community and encourage discussion among residents of my block here in Boston.

    • Adam W

      Well, I read all the comments here, and they were an interesting enhancement to the article. So I guess that disproves your point. In fact, why did you write your comments if you didn’t think they enhanced anything?

    • Doug

      Because this is a conversation, not reporting. They are not the same things.

    • what a bunch of crap

    • Hey all,
      Sorry about the server glitch with comments. We’re working on fixing that…Bad timing, huh?
      I think people have different needs with comments than others. Some like to chat over the newspaper and that’s fine — but it doesn’t reach the writer. What I like about comments on my stories, as a journalist, is that they often add more to the story, give me and my readers new perspectives, and spark ideas for other stories. The more I hear from readers, the more I understand who they are.
      I agree that some forums and comments are a waste of time. In those cases, the best option is just ignore them and move on…

    • Well, one good thing about comments is you get to find out, for instance, that the guy running the Public Insights project at APM believes that you’re not valuable unless he’s pimping you for his masters. Well worth the price of admission, right there.

      Mark: You probably know this, but there’s an increasing trend to arrest people based not on their blogs or on their posts but on the comments they leave and the comments they allow. This has happened in Bahrain, Malaysia, Kuwait, Syria and elsewhere – the latest instance was in Lebanon. If tyrants see fit to arrest people for it, there must be some value to it.

      Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to turn on public radio and listen to a journalist interview another journalist about something a third journalist told him. (I positively tingle at the prospect of becoming “more well informed.”)

    • I put together the article commenting system for my employer in Denver, and although I don’t speak for them, here’s what I see:

      • � Keeping it civil is hard — newspaper web sites are not Usenet forums, and I don’t think they should be. Here, December was a rough month. This is a conversation about that, and the ensuing action my team took.
      • � It’s possible that newspaper web sites are breaking the “Spirit of the Interweb” by active and passive moderation of comments. It’s not the first thing newspapers have gotten wrong online, and it sure won’t be the last.
      • � The comment model of conversation, as other commenters pointed out, is not an effective way to harness facts or information. I look at it as trying to have a conversation with 15 other people, standing in a circle, yelling. There’s a huge gaping hole for better discussion systems, and there are companies such as Intense Debate that are already working on such things, to a certain extent. Way more room exists in this field, and a lot of it involves defining what type of comment the comment is: Personal opinion, fact (supported or not supported with citations), or personal experience.

      • ANITA James

        please i want you all to read this testimony as the man was brought to the world to save people from frustrations from lost loves lost jobs i wanna post on this forum because i know there are many of you out there who are in the same problem i was i am Mabel writhe and i am from Canada cold lake in Alberta and i and my husband were married for fifteen years with three children our lives were flourishing my husband had a good job and i was a sales representative in his company then on the 10th of October 2012 my home started to crumble everything was going upside down and my husband left me and my children for a little girl and when i heard of it i was so devastated and when i go to his office to see him he told his boss he doesn’t want to see me no more and in the process i lost my job i and my children we were suffering and i was looking for solutions were ever it was to no avail i contacted so many spell casters who could not do anything and i decided to give up until i met a friend on 1st of may and he told me of a powerful spell caster who she met in Africa when she went to execute a project in Africa and she gave me his mail address as{doctorspiritthehabalist12@gmail.com}, and i contacted him on 2nd of may 2013 and he told me many things i didn’t know before he let me into many secrets and he cast the spell and told me that on 4th of may my husband was going to come back to me i didn’t believe him i had my doubt, and as he promised my husband came begging me on the 4th of may 2013 and i contacted him and told him all that he said came true and he said i was going to get my job back and also get promoted and on the 6th of may i got my job back, i was promoted and i was compensated for the days i was relieved of my work i want to thank the greatest spell caster in the world Dr spirit he told me he can bring back lost love, lost jobs,promotion lotto win,and many more if we have two men like him today the world will be a good place once again thank you sir, here his is mail if you want to contact him as he will answer you asap.{doctorspiritthehabalist12@gmail.com},hope he help you out too.

    • I put together the article commenting system for my employer in Denver, and although I don’t speak for them, here’s what I see:

      • Keeping it civil is hard — newspaper web sites are not Usenet forums, and I don’t think they should be. Here, December was a rough month. This is a conversation about that, and the ensuing action my team took.
      • It’s possible that newspaper web sites are breaking the “Spirit of the Interweb” by active and passive moderation of comments. It’s not the first thing newspapers have gotten wrong online, and it sure won’t be the last.
      • The comment model of conversation, as other commenters pointed out, is not an effective way to harness facts or information. I look at it as trying to have a conversation with 15 other people, standing in a circle, yelling. There’s a huge gaping hole for better discussion systems, and there are companies such as Intense Debate that are already working on such things, to a certain extent. Way more room exists in this field, and a lot of it involves defining what type of comment the comment is: Personal opinion, fact (supported or not supported with citations), or personal experience.

    • At SignOnSanDiego we’ve had wild and wooly forums for the last decade, and weve had our share of flame wars, troll-baiting, porn-posting and other rowdiness, but that was controllable and largely socially self-correcting (Dont feed the trolls!). But the dynamic was dynamically different when we started letting readers post comments on the bottoms of our stories last year. While there have been some insightful threads on civic issues and it’s great when readers give you feedback, the biggest effect has been the coarsening of the content on our site.

      Anything folks might mutter to each other at a bar while watching the news they’ll post on a story: Car accident? “Bet she was drunk.” Single-car accident? “Hey, here’s another Darwin Award winner!” Commercial fire? “Fire sale! LOL. Bet it was arson. Check his insurance.” Police dog dies trying to keep man from jumping off bridge? “Dog gone! LOL.” Body found in the wilderness? “Build a fence! Keep the *&$) (#@**&!@@ on their side of the border.” Carjacking? “You’re hiding the race of the perps because they’re illegals and your paper is pro-illegal.”

      And those are mild.

      And the e-mails come, along the lines of: “How could you let people say X about my daughter/son/dead mother?” “I no longer respect your organization. Please cancel my subscription.” “whyY DID YOU BAN MEEEEE!!!!! ”

      So, yes, when time and awareness allow, we do turn off the comments on stories involving potential illegal immigrants, sex crimes, odd deaths and identifications of bodies for most of those reasons — and commenters start going down the list of metro stories on the home page, posting the comments they can’t post on those stories on every other story and complaining about censorship.

      Conceptually, I’m all for freedom of expression and enabling wide-ranging discussions with and among readers, but you have to realize that most of the folks visiting local news sites aren’t thoughful college debaters or the type of people who read two newspapers on Sunday at their local Starbucks. They’re everyone who ever wanted a say about anything, and they want to express themselves whenever and however they care to, whether it’s on their MySpace page, some fan forum or the site to which your news organization has attached its reputation and future.

      So, for better or worse, we’re entering a world where part of being a journalist is either scrubbing the graffiti off the online equivalent of a bathroom wall — or letting it stay.

    • NY TIMES COMMENT SELECTION IS BIASED

      Unfortunately when sites like the New York Times provide readers with the ability to comment on news articles, readers don’t realize the selection process of displayed reader comments can be biased. And that can be dangerous as it allows them to pretend that they are inviting their readers into a robust discussion in which all relevant viewpoints are being aired and instead really limits the discussion within very narrow boundaries. I’ll give you an example of this biased selection process in action. On 1/15/08, a Times blog article entitled “2008 RACE DOMINATES MEDIA COVERAGE” permitted readers to add their own comments to it. I submitted mine (copied below) which was not published on the site along with other reader comments. This is what my non-published comment said:

      “Instead of covering a national election almost a full year away, news media should be addressing the most pressing issues facing humanity. That such election related stories were almost half of all media coverage demonstrates that’s simply not the case. Front page news, news that SHOULD dominate coverage, should have to pass a litmus test – that it involve stories which affect the LARGEST number of people in the MOST serious (life and death) ways. To get such front page news, you have to surf the internet because the traditional news media, including the Times, report on news that would pass this test only sporadically. My website http://www.WhatNewsShouldBe.org is one example where you can get REAL news which does pass this litmus test. This is the type of news that SHOULD dominate media coverage as it is the only way that the most pressing issues facing humanity can be addressed and considered by the masses. Shame on all mainstream media that do not utilize this Journalism 101 definition of what constitutes “news”.
      Angie
      http://www.WhatNewsShouldBe.org

      The NY Times FAQS indicate that they don’t “review individual moderation decisions because of the volume of reader comments”. Not content, I emailed about my censored comment experience to the NY Times Public Editor – more than once in fact. The first email I sent them had this as the subject heading:
      “possible investigation needed into Blog Comment selection”. Then, I got back a only a standard:

      “Thank you for contacting the Public Editor. An associate or I read every message. Because of the volume of e-mail, we cannot respond personally to every message, but we forward many messages to appropriate newsroom staffers and follow up to be sure concerns raised in those messages are treated with serious consideration. If a further reply is warranted, you will be hearing from us shortly.”

      On 1/15/08, after my comment to the “2008 RACE DOMINATES MEDIA COVERAGE” was not published, this is what I emailed the Public Editor:

      To: public@nytimes.com

      Re: please respond personally this time re: biased Blog Comment selection

      Below is the 2nd written example I’m providing you to demonstrate that there is bias in the selection process of comments posted on the Times’ blogs. The Times’ apparently doesn’t publish comments that contain sharp criticism of mainstream news…Today, for the 2nd example, I submitted a comment only about an hour after the blog topic was posted and BEFORE any other comments have been published. It clearly is on point with the issue, contains a unique viewpoint on same with a discussion of a litmus test for media coverage which weren’t repeated in any of the comments posted which were sent in after mine, and doesn’t violate any of your rules. There’s no reason why it should not have been selected for the subject blog unless the Times wants to censor comments that contain sharp critiques of itself or mainstream media generally – something that you as public editor should not permit. Please respond personally because there’s a pattern here that needs addressing. Here’s the comment that should have been published on your site today but wasn’t . . .

      What did I get back? The same “don’t call us, we’ll call you response” automated response was the only response I received. This is an example of how the Times’ human monitors cannot be trusted to sort through readers comments. It’s not surprising really, since, of course, they can’t be trusted to decide what front page “news” is either, the very subject of my censored comment.

      Angie
      http://www.WhatNewsShouldBe.org

    • Paul Massey

      Regarding online immunity: comments written in the US which offend in another country may be subject to the defamation laws of another country where immunity may not apply provided reputation has been damaged in that country.
      Therefore a US law analysis is shortsighted.

      Examples of the courts of other countries accepting jurisdiction to rule on cases involving online statements originating in the US include:

      Autralia: Dow Jones v Gutnick
      England: Berezovsky v Michaels.

      Defamation is only the tip of the iceberg of liability for user generated content. Posts impacting copyright, privacy, contempt of court, specific national laws (eg Nazi memorabilia in France) are also relevant.

    • Paul Massey

      Regarding online immunity: comments written in the US which offend in another country may be subject to the defamation laws of another country where immunity may not apply provided reputation has been damaged in that country.
      Therefore a US law analysis is shortsighted.

      Examples of the courts of other countries accepting jurisdiction to rule on cases involving online statements originating in the US include:

      Autralia: Dow Jones v Gutnick
      England: Berezovsky v Michaels.

      Defamation is only the tip of the iceberg of liability for user generated content. Posts impacting copyright, privacy, contempt of court, specific national laws (eg Nazi memorabilia in France) are also relevant.

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      The Rockford Register Star Forums (Rrstar.com) purged nearly every Democrat, Progressive and Left leaning Independent today on its Message Forum.
      This leaves only one voice which has spewed loud and clear there for years now.
      The Right Wing Radicals who have spewed countless slanders against Democratic Candidates, As well as a bigotry against Blacks and Latinos with such hated and venom Id not seen in years.
      Their excuses, The few bad apples are less than truthful when you consider nearly all who were banned were Democrats.

      42 in total thus far and 0 Republicans
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      And far too many to call a coincidence

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