In January, someone who goes by the name “crosswave” logged onto the reader forums at nydailynews.com and posted a comment about sports columnist Filip Bondy. “Eff you Filip Bondy,” the post read, “You should be banished back to covering ghetto futbol in Newark.” In March, another sports columnist, Terence Moore of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, was labeled “racist” by a handful of readers on ajc.com. “Mr. Moore can actually make the Klan look reasonably intelligent by comparison,” wrote one user, who identified himself as “Salad Tosser.”
Personal attacks and off-topic rants are nothing new to newspaper Web sites. Back in 2005, the Ventura County Star temporarily disabled comments on its site after the tone turned vicious; in 2006, The Washington Post suspended comments on one of its blogs because they had become obscene. But as newspapers try to boost traffic and revenue on their Web sites by granting readers more ways to weigh in, abusive comments have flourished. Editors have an arsenal of technological tools at their disposal, such as mandatory registration, word filters, “report abuse” buttons, and even the sly “Bozo filter,” which gives blacklisted users the false impression that their comments are being posted, when in fact nobody else can read them. But software can only do so much. “The minute you put a filter in place, your trolls find a way past it,” says Yvonne Beasley, the home-page editor of The Des Moines Register’s Web site.
The question of how to balance openness and interactivity with the desire for civil debate is more an ethical question than a legal one, in light of the fact that the Federal Communications Decency Act grants Web sites immunity from defamation suits arising from user-generated content. But there is concern that derogatory, obscene, threatening, or libelous user comments could damage a newspaper’s brand or alienate readers—to say nothing of the anger that reporters and columnists feel when the comments attached to their work turn abusive.Adam Rose is a former CJR intern and a freelance writer based in New York City.