By Deborah Howell
Not so long ago, the only way to talk back to The Post was to write a civil letter to the editor, with a verifiable name and address, or to contact the ombudsman.
Now, click on "view all comments" at the end of a story, column or blog on washingtonpost.com and enter a new world that challenges long-held practices and that can unnerve some journalists and readers. The online comments are immediate, use only e-mail addresses as identification and can be raw, racist, sexist and revolting. Jim Brady, washingtonpost.com's executive editor, said, "It's much more of a free-for-all."
Washingtonpost.com is one of the first major newspaper Web sites to include comments, which are linked to most stories and columns. The intent was to build reader loyalty by making the Web site "more of a conversation than just a lecture. We've started to build a community to talk about the news and not just read it," Brady said. "Every [newspaper] Web site will have them before too long."
Complaints first came from the newsroom. Reporters don't appreciate the often rude feedback, which I get, too. (A sample reader comment on my column last week: "I think we can all agree after reading Howell's lame comments week after week that the Post should save money by eliminating her position entirely. She is worse than a dupe.")
The Web site draws about 4,600 comments a day. But not all readers are happy about this feature. Philip J. Celeste of Danvers, Mass., wrote: "The Washington Post is an excellent newspaper . . . it has the most informative, current, up-to-the-minute and objective news that is happening in our nation's capital. I think the comments section after all news stories should be eliminated. They are like an open sewer."
Amanda Poindexter of Silver Spring wrote: "I find it unbelievable that a newspaper with the resources of the Washington Post cannot do a better job of monitoring the postings to articles. You have a few posters who use racist and bigoted attacks on a regular basis. Requests to remove their postings take an inordinate amount of time to be acted upon, if [they are] at all."
Two full-time staffers monitor comments, but they can't get to every objectionable post quickly. "The requests for removal [a link accompanying every posted comment] are the first line of defense, and certain story topics, such as the Iraq war and local crime, can be ugly, and we keep an eye on those," Brady said.
Software on the site censors profanity. Personal attacks and "inappropriate comments" also are forbidden, though "inappropriate" is not defined. "It's obviously subjective," Brady said. "We have to make judgment calls about what's an attack and what isn't. It's kind of like the old line about pornography: You know it when you see it."
A reader in McLean was disturbed that the Web site did not honor his request to remove comments on a story about the debate over building a Metro tunnel under Tysons Corner. Tunnel supporters were called "stupid" and "a bunch of idiots." The reader said the comments were "insulting. You would not publish such remarks in the paper -- why online?"
Brady said, " 'Idiot' isn't polite, obviously, but it doesn't rise to the level of removal. Not every comment will add to the debate in a meaningful way, but that doesn't qualify them for removal."
If there's a technical glitch -- and there have been a few lately -- readers get frustrated when they can't post comments. Several readers have complained that the comment software prevents them from writing words that contain the letter combination "ck." The software also blocks the use of punctuation marks such as parentheses, percent signs and quotation marks.
One reader who appears to post comments frequently wrote, "I beg you to do something. . . . For months there have been comments throughout the comments sections complaining about this [and] . . . the problem has become much, much worse." Brady said the "ck" and punctuation mark problems will be resolved when a new system is installed next week.
Web site comments appear in the print edition, too. Excerpts from Sports reporter Dan Steinberg's blog appear most days with comments attached; they have generated no complaints.
But I got a complaint Tuesday about comments attached to the print debut of Metro columnist Marc Fisher's blog "Raw Fisher." The blog entry was on speeding. Reader Patrick Jasperse of Silver Spring wrote: "I'm a big fan of Marc Fisher. . . . But if [the blog] is simply going to provide a forum for anonymous, venomous diatribes, I hope this new feature comes to a quick end. This morning's debut featured comments from someone who 'hates' slow drivers/truckers/bicyclists, a bicyclist who flaunts his disregard of traffic laws, and someone who hopes to retaliate against that bicyclist by hitting him with a moving car."
The comment on hitting the bicyclist disturbed me but not Fisher: "It would be wrong to filter out viewpoints that are antagonistic or aggressive simply because some readers might disagree with them. The good news is that the comment boards are remarkably self-correcting. The ugliest comments get shouted down pretty fast."
Two important journalism values -- free, unfettered comment and civil, intelligent discourse -- are colliding. My two cents: Monitor the comments much more vigorously and use the old journalism rule: When in doubt, take it out.
Deborah Howell can be reached at 202-334-7582 or firstname.lastname@example.org.