Sunday, August 12, 2007

Online comments on story go overboard, but discussion is valuable

Online comments on story go overboard, but discussion is valuable

It was 209 year ago and the mudslingers were two of our founding fathers. Thomas Jefferson and John Adams would later become best friends, but in 1798 they were not. Jefferson was supported by the Democratic-Republicans in opposition to Adams' Federalist supporters.

As their relationship deteriorated, Jefferson began anonymously feeding trash about Adams to the editor of The Aurora, a Philadelphia newspaper. The newspaper's editor, a grandson of Benjamin Franklin, began using the material as fodder for wicked and often untruthful junk published under fictitious bylines. So did some 20 other newspapers. The president was called ``old, querulous, bald, crippled, toothless Adams'' and worse.

We've experienced similar mudslinging the past two weeks on the U-B's Web site. It was sparked by the July 31 news report of the arrest of Raymond M. Clayton, 38, a Walla Walla police officer.

The newspaper story was a fair report of information released that morning at a news conference. We had been alerted that the topic would be ``sensitive.'' Editor Rick Doyle later told me he could not recall a similar conference called by the chief of police, and for that reason he knew it would indeed be newsworthy.

Two reporters - Terry McConn and Maria Gonzalez - attended. So did Internet Content Editor Carlos Virgen, who videotaped Chief Chuck Fulton's announcement.

The newsroom did an excellent job pulling the story together, and Virgen quickly packaged the video onto our Web site. By the next morning reader comments following the story had moved from disbelief and support of the accused officer to mudslinging.

We've allowed Web users to post comments after stories since mid-February. For the most part the posts have been civil - and often illuminating as they provided more facts and background. Readers who have taken advantage of this new form of public communication have - almos
t without exception until recently - taken the high road.
But comments under the Clayton story quickly headed south. Instead of focusing on the alleged crime (Clayton was arrested on suspicion of third-degree child molestation for an alleged encounter with an underage girl about five years ago), a handful of respondents posted generalized accusations aimed at the police department, at the alleged victim, at women in general and at the Union-Bulletin and its news staff.

Some of the discourse, while robust, was thought-provoking. There were elements of a community forum, but way too much was off topic and mean-spirited.

When thoughtful folks enter into a discourse, the truth often emerges. But in this instance truth was overwhelmed as a handful of writers careened off into a cesspit of innuendo and insult. Occasionally a rational writer would attempt to bring the community conversation back on track, often to be attacked. Folks, it was ugly.

Until then we had a short disclaimer on our comments section noting that libelous and profane material would be taken off the site. But in this case it wasn't enough.

We pulled the worst down, but by Aug. 2, there were some 90 different addressees engaged, prompting one respondent to declare: ``I can hardly believe the ugliness that is pouring out of people.'' Another said, ``First time I have visited this web site. I am thoroughly disgusted.''

And there were comments from some respondents questioning why the U-B's story included Clayton's address.

That question is easy to answer. For several decades it has been a policy at the Union-Bulletin to carefully and completely identify those arrested and accused of felonies and of driving while under the influence.

Because there are folks in town with the same first and last names - quite a few, actually - we include addresses to pinpoint the identity of the people named in our emergency service reports and stories we choose to write about newsworthy arrests. It is a practice that was taught in journalism schools - at least back when I attended. And many, but not all, newspapers adhere to it.

You might argue that in our report on Clayton's arrest there was no need for this level of identification. After all, the story included his picture, and there is only one Raymond Clayton on the force. That's true, but another policy we've tried to follow is consistency. Had we omitted his address, obtained from public records related to his arrest, we'd have been questioned for offering special treatment. So, we included his address to remain consistent with our policy.

What's interesting about this debate is addresses of homeowners are not private information. You may request not to be listed in the phone book, but if you are a property owner - and Clayton is - your address and many details (including the number of bathrooms in your house) are published by the county government. Your address and these details are public information - very public.

The volume of vitriolic comments following this story was a bigger concern for us. The story broke on Tuesday and by Thursday we agreed we needed a more detailed policy. By the end of the day we posted the policy at the end of this column. We also agreed we needed to expand the number of staff members monitoring the postings.

Finally, we added a hyperlink - an active button under the words ``contact-us'' - that generates an e-mail to those here who can pull down comments that don't comply with our guidelines.

We are in the process of refining our policy, and if you know of newspaper sites that have policies we should look at, please let us know.

So why are we doing this at all? Why not just eliminate this community forum?

Public debate is central to a free exchange of ideas. The comments on stories are part of the conversation. Hidden among all the jabbering are nuggets of truth and insight.

The Internet is a young medium, just as newspapers were a young medium in the country at the time Jefferson and Adams (and their pen-wielding supporters) conducted their public discourse so coarsely. Over time, the public exchanges in newspapers have been elevated. Manners - along with a little policing by the newspapers - brought about the change.

What we don't want to do is shut down this community conversation. The two-way exchange is what distinguish-es the Internet from other media, and if we want to stay in the communications arena we have to understand and use this dynamic new tool.

What we do want to do is elevate the tone. With your help we will.

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