Moderating User Generating Content
The issue of user-generated content has been subject to scrutiny and debate among online news media, many of whom have questioned its place in online journalism. We reported that A Moderated Approach to User Generated Content seemed to produce more accurate and censored content than opponents would lead you to believe. Then, we reported on the status of online comments as used by online newspapers and as to whether or not comments enhance the quality of online journalism. Now, we bring the next phase in the saga of online comments: the difficulty in maintenance and moderation.Editor & Publisher had argued that it's all in the way that online comments are integrated into online newspapers. They are confident that user-generated comments that work toward supplementing news reports with eyewitness accounts, photos and videos will invigorate and empower local communities.

The Trouble with Maintaining User Comments

Editor & Publisher recently remarked about the difficulty in maintaining and moderating user comments:
..traffic volume has made it difficult for any but the wealthiest media operations to monitor user comments as diligently as they do letters to the editor or "talk backs" to news directors. The combination of virtually open access and limited oversight has turned these public squares into mosh pits, without the latter's youthful exuberance or bonhomie.
Trying to adhere to policies that work to keep rules in place without disrupting or silencing the passionate voices of their readers have challenged media operators. Yet, many news media have taken steps in striking a balance between quality and quantity. At a recent session at the Unity: Journalists of Color Convention in August, the Poynter Institute gave guidance on how to more productively manage Web site exchanges. They maintained that while registration mechanisms and monitoring are important, media operations must also "set a tone that fosters civil discourse rather than simply listing rules that if broken would result in 'banishment'". In order to facilitate an exchange of positive ideas and thoughtful opinions, the language inviting contributions should be "welcoming and itself civil", while clearly stating the purpose of the forum.

How Newspapers Handle User Comments

Editor and Publisher did a review of the 10 largest U.S. newspapers contribution policies in an effort to see how many include such mechanisms for soliciting and moderating user comments. They found that all of the papers reviewed, USA Today, Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, New York Daily News, Philadelphia Inquirer, Denver Post and Houston Chronicle, had some mechanisms to monitor user-generated content, ranging from comment screening by staffers to encouraging users to report offensive postings themselves. However, seven newspapers (USA Today, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, the Daily News, Philadelphia Inquirer, Denver Post and the Houston Chronicle) required registration before users are permitted to post, while five newspapers (The New York Times, Chicago Tribune, L.A. Times, New York Daily News and Denver Post) preview comments before they are posted. Of the 10 papers reviewed only the New York Daily News and the Denver Post employed both registration and moderation. Newspaper's rationale to users explaining how comments work or how they will be monitored ranged from apologetic--pleading to users that their system reduces the number of inappropriate posts, to the confident--asking users to police themselves and report incidents of abuse, to the over protective--warning users that violations may results in legal action.

The Debate on User-Generated Comments Goes On

The debate about the fate of user-generated comments continues. Integrating the voice of its readers is one of the roles newspapers assume in reporting the news. It's only fair that they employ mechanisms that work to facilitate thoughtful discussion and not alienate or dismiss the ideas of their audience. There is no easy answer as to whether or not user comments are the most effective tool newspapers have in soliciting the voice of their readers, but it is worth experimenting with and tailoring to fit the needs of users as appropriate.