Friday, May 19, 2006

I ran across this piece, run in the Miami's New Times, about The Miami Herald's fairly un-regulated reader comment section, on the newspaper's web site. It offers some interesting observations on that paper's standards for what's acceptable commentary on stories and what's not.

Miami Herald Wrestles With Free Speech

The Herald has been accepting comments on its web site for stories that
appear in the newspaper for about a month now — and it has the feel of a
bold experiment. There seem to be few controls. The editors allow commenting
on a handful of potentially controversial stories each day and readers post
them instantaneously. It’s free speech in its rawest form and its now being
done across the recently sold Knight Ridder chain.
Check out yesterday’s response to Dan Christensen’s story about U.S. Sen.
Mel Martinez accepting $250,000 at a fundraiser partially organized by
disgraced GOP lobbyist Jack Abramoff. It’s definitely raw.
“Cubans and Jews should go back from where they came,” wrote a lovely fellow
who goes by “La Pluma.” “Anglos do business. Cubans and Jews steal.”
Not exactly the Herald’s standard fare (they usually don’t do hate). Another
commentator called Martinez a “crook” — a charge that isn’t made nor
substantiated in the article. Another called him a “traitor.” Still another
wrote, “If you dig deeper, you will find Martinez takes part in aiding
illegals enter the US.”
Obviously, that stuff seems a little dangerous for the Herald to publish,
especially the totally unfounded stuff about immigrant smuggling. It made me
wonder if anybody is monitoring the comments at all. So I dialed up Rick
Hirsch, the Herald’s Managing Editor/Multimedia, and left him detailed
questions about the posts and the new commentary system.
When Hirsch phoned in the afternoon, he said he hadn’t been aware of the
Martinez comments and had them removed from the site after he got my
message. (Sure enough they were gone.) Were the comments approved by Herald
employees before they appeared on the site in the first place?
“Readers post directly to the web,” Hirsch said. “There is a button that
enables readers to object to comments that they find objectionable. … We try
to review the comments, we keep an eye on them, but we’ve had some stories
where we’ve gotten hundreds and hundreds of comments. To be looking at that
24/7 in real time is not something that we can do.”
So it’s a self-policing method: If a reader objects to a comment, Herald
staffers are alerted. Then they use their judgment as to whether they want
to delete it. When asked which story so far has gotten the most incendiary
comments so far, Hirsch didn’t want to get too specific but said, “People
wrote some unusual things about [Miami Dolphins coach] Nick Saban.”
Despite the occasional problems, Hirsch said that the Herald is basically
dedicated to having a free-wheeling discussion.
“As a matter of policy I wouldn’t call it an open mike, but it’s a free
debate,” Hirsch said. “The web is not the same thing as the newspaper,
certainly, and I think that anybody who has a web site has to wrestle with
what you censor and where you draw the line. We try to stay out of the
debate as much as we can.”
You have to love that attitude and it’s good to see the Herald — and the
entire soon-to-be-part-of-McClatchy chain — throw a little caution to the
wind. I’ve been told by people in the media business that there’s actually
no difference, legally speaking, between what appears in the newspaper and
what’s on the web site. But I have to agree with Hirsch — there is an
obvious difference. The web site is malleable and quickly fixable, while the
newspaper is basically set in stone. So long as the Herald shows good faith
in expeditiously removing libelous comments, it shouldn’t have a problem.
The First Amendment should win out.
That’s should. Unfortunately that question could play out in a courtroom.
It’s a quandary that, as Hirsch said, just about everyone involved in the
Internet has had to wrestle with at one time or another. What do you think?

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