January 8, 2015 Last Updated 7:15 am

Newspaper websites and other online forums continue to struggle with comment policies

Washington Post, other newspapers come to defense of freedom of the press and nonviolence in editorials appearing today, but poorly moderated reader comments often clash with messages of tolerance and peace

The Washington Post, The New York Times and many other newspapers around the world today published editorials in support of the French newspaper Charlie Hebdo and the need to protect freedom of the press.

WorldPapers-CHThe reaction from readers is very hard to tell as each newspaper’s commenting policies are different. But where comments are not moderated, or moderated with a light touch, reader comments were often vile, hateful and very much different from the editorial’s tone of tolerance and nonviolence.

“Several publishers in Western countries have disgraced themselves in recent years with self-censorship to avoid being targeted by Islamic militants,” wrote the editorial board of the Post. “The French newspaper Charlie Hebdo did the opposite: Even after its offices were firebombed in 2011, and even after its editor was put on an al-Qaeda wanted list, it continued to courageously publish cartoons and articles lampooning Islam — as well as Christianity, Judaism and established religion in general.”

“There are some who will say that Charlie Hebdo tempted the ire of Islamists one too many times, as if coldblooded murder is the price to pay for putting out a magazine,” the NYT editorial read. “The massacre was motivated by hate. It is absurd to suggest that the way to avoid terrorist attacks is to let the terrorists dictate standards in a democracy.”

The number of comments to each story allowed online varied between the papers. The Post, which lightly moderates its comments, had by this morning double the number posted than the Times, which more closely moderates its comments. The tone of comments in the Post, therefore, was harsher, more in contrast to the actual editorial published.

Many publishers this morning may read the comments on their editorials and wonder if their editorial message really will resonate with readers who have posted often hateful comments on their site.

One comment on the editorial in the NYT is worth reproducing, however:

I write a column in a small town newspaper in the rural Midwest. I am so careful not to offend in this world of extremist militias, climate change deniers, and blatant racism. Frankly, in our democracy I am just as afraid of speaking out – just as afraid of physical action against me if I take real stands on issues… for I am not Christian and am quite certain that though the community loves the columns, one misstep and it will be because I am not of “them.” There is no question that violent extremism is growing all over the world. I am an older woman who has such a committed life of activism and because I am alone, I am afraid to write of anything other than sweeping sweet commonality. Am I cowardly or am I wise? Today I am feeling I am wise. The assault on the French newspaper is frightening not only because of growing Moslem extremism. We need to look at our homegrown violent bigots… No kidding. Don’t be naive…

Several commentaries at both papers pointed out that a major story of terrorism seems to have been underplayed because of the attack on Charlie Hebdo On Tuesday, an explosion outside the building that houses the Colorado Springs office of the NAACP caused damage, but no one was injured. Yesterday, the FBI said the incident was most likely a hate crime.

“It is certainly a possibility of being a hate crime or domestic terrorism, however we are exploring all possibilities of potential motive,” a spokeswoman for the FBI said.

The story led the local newspaper’s website, The Gazette, a newspaper owned by Clarity Media Group (though it was buried inside today’s print edition). The editors, likely anticipating what comments they might receive, closed off comments on their story on the bombing today.

But The Denver Post, a Digital First Media newspaper, allowed readers to comment, with the expected results.

“I had to click on the link to this story just to see how many nuts, goofballs, bigots and full-blown winkies would be commenting. Thank you, internet crazies for turning out in such numbers!” wrote one commenter who obviously knew what to expect from the comments.

The issue of reader comments on news stories will likely continue to be something editors struggle with in 2015. But the solution seems fairly obvious: columns are about opinions and probably should allow comments, but news items are about what the reporter has seen or knows, and where comments that bitterly dispute the report probably undermine the reporter’s efforts to report the news.

I would not be surprised that more papers don’t follow the lead of the NYT which regularly shuts off comments on this major news stories, and moderates those on opinion columns. Many papers do not have the staff needed to moderate comments on every stories so limiting commenting to stories where they feel they can moderate them many be the solution.

One solution, used for years on boards, is to have board members serve as the moderators. This can only work in certain circumstances, but some smaller newspapers may want to experiment with the concept.

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