8:00 PM EDT, August 16, 2011
Long before I left local television news, management could not have emphasized more the importance of their web sites. This was the future, they said, and we all needed to get on board. Since I left the emphasis seems to be even stronger; why else would they have the on-air people mention their web sites at every possible opportunity. Obviously I have seen “the future” by writing this column exclusively for WSBT.com.
But I have a long-standing gripe about something that occurs over and over on these web sites and reared its ugly head once again late last week.
I am talking about the comments readers are urged to write seemingly with little or no editorial control in place. The most recent story that needed adult supervision was the Friday hostage situation in Granger. Because the incident had not been resolved by the end of the 6:00 p.m. news I turned to the web pages of two stations to see what the outcome might be. When I finally got to the comments section I was, to put it mildly, appalled.
On the WSBT.com web site some of the comments were at least border line racist, others were clearly smart-ass statements, and some contained outright falsehoods. There was also a good deal of nonsense on the WNDU.com web site. Just in case I was overreacting, I asked my wife to read them and tell me what she thought. She too was appalled. I could easily repeat many of those comments here because I printed them, but I am not going to do that because I think some people who write these comments do so only so they can see their bile and venom in print.
Outright falsehoods or lies are another matter. For instance, one person commented with his or her litany of recent Notre Dame-connected sins (the suspect, as you know is a former ND assistant football coach) and said, “…half the team has been arrested for underage drinking.”
Really? Maybe I was out of town when that story broke.
Of course the worst offenders usually hide behind some phony e-mail address name. Even if the stations have a system to identify these people, the readers have no idea who they are. That is wrong. If you write a letter to the South Bend Tribune you have to use your real name and give the Tribune your phone number and address so they can verify you really are you.
The other very bad thing about this is letting people go back and forth, taking pot shots at one another which usually amounts to liar, liar, pants on fire. Not to be a conspiracy theorist, but the stations like to tout how may ‘hits” they get on their web sites. Allowing all of this ensures you get a lot more “hits.”
Last year there was a story and comments on the Tribune web site that has stayed with me ever since. As I recall, the story was about a house fire in Mishawaka where a father went in and saved his children. But his wife was trapped on the second floor, and to save her own life she jumped out of a second story window. That evening the FIRST comment after the story was, ”…all I want to know is did she bounce?” Very funny? No, very sad and very mean-spirited, just like many of the comments about the hostage situation. Just mean-spirited.
I have a question for the local stations. Would you allow your on-air people to read some of this nonsense verbatim on the air? I don’t think so, and even if you told them to do it, the professionals I personally worked with – Cindy, Debra, Dustin, Maureen and Terry – would walk off the set before they would do so.
I am not an employee of WSBT, but obviously I am associated with WSBT.com. I also realize that local news budgets are strained and the staffs are being asked to do more and more. But that is no excuse to not have a gatekeeper for the comments. It would have taken less than ten minutes for a professional newsperson at the local stations to expunge the awful stuff that followed the hostage story. Please apply the same professionalism to that web segment as you always try to do for your newscasts.
Mike raises an interesting point and deserves a response.
WSBT-TV is aware of the problem of ugly and sometimes racist comments that follow a web news story. It’s a problem across the industry, as more and more user-generated content finds its way onto web sites.
On the one hand, user contributions are a good thing. User-generated photos from news scenes broaden and advance the story, and a spirited back-and-forth in the comments section creates a community discussion, not just the one-way street of the past.
But with this new platform, there are bound to be offenders, and WSBT has taken steps to monitor the ugliest of their comments.
First of all, we have a collection of key words that “flag” a comment, requiring it to be read by a web staff member before it is published. These words include all the well-known obscenities and racial insults. If someone were to include any of these terms in a web comment, it wouldn’t see the light of day.
It’s impossible, however, to prepare for every kind of racist innuendo. If a writer wants to decry the negative impact of certain neighborhoods moving closer to Granger, the underlying message would be clear, but the key words list wouldn’t flag the comment.
Some comments like these made their way onto WSBT.com following the hostage standoff story, though they were eventually taken down.
And this addresses the second line of defense at our disposal. Why can’t we devote ten minutes to “expunge the awful stuff” from the comments? Because comments don’t appear in a ten-minute window. The hostage crisis was a prolonged event, lasting many hours. The WSBT news staff’s first responsibility was to monitor and report events as they unfolded. As often as possible, web staffers checked in on the web site to see what comments were appearing, but some ugly and racially-tinged remarks found their way onto the pages.
It would be a full-time job to approve every comment before it appeared, and, as Mike noted, staffing constraints sometimes don’t allow for such scenarios. Nevertheless, we appreciate Mike’s opinion, and we welcome the opportunity to illuminate WSBT.com’s comment policy.
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