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Newspapers Face Ugly Side Of Web Future

RINKER BUCK

June 18, 2008

Hartford Mayor Eddie Perez's attack on The Courant for allowing readers to post racist and hateful speech on the paper's online comment boards raises an issue increasingly confronting newsrooms across the country as newspapers rapidly transform from primarily a print to an Internet business:

How far should newspapers go in policing that kind of speech?

On Monday, in an open letter co-signed by six Hartford public officials, Perez accused The Courant of being insensitive to minorities for not removing posts on courant.com that, he says, referred to inner-city residents as "barbarians" and described immigrants and African Americans as lacking "traditional New England standards of civility."

The Courant's comment boards swelled with passionate debate this month following the paper's coverage of the May 30 hit-and-run on Park Street that left Angel Arce Torres critically injured, and the June 2 mugging of former Deputy Mayor Nicholas Carbone. The two incidents sparked broad debate about civility in Hartford in many forums.

Stories about Hartford typically draw offensive comments on The Courant's message boards. Although a number of editors regularly watch for speech that crosses the line, the speed and volume of the postings can outpace their efforts.

As newspapers rapidly embrace the Internet as a means of recovering readers they have lost in their print editions, they have mostly adopted the "open forum" values of the Web, which allows users to anonymously post comments on articles and news events. This has made newspaper comment boards a magnet for a small but vocal percentage of readers who openly engage in venomous personal attacks or racist sentiments.

But critics say that newspapers have been too slow to respond to the challenge of curbing hate-filled speech, either lacking the monitoring capacity, not wanting to discourage page visits to their websites or looking for means of encouraging more participation by readers.

This reverses the historic role of newspapers, which considered themselves guardians of civility and, for example, refused to print anonymous letters to the editor on the grounds that it would invite irresponsible speech that could not be addressed by other readers.

Edward Wasserman, a Washington and Lee University journalism professor who has written extensively on the conflicts that the Web presents to traditional publishers, is critical of editors who adopt a "digital big tent" or "Internet town meeting" mentality as they migrate content to the Web.

"Is it really a benefit to the community to allow every loudmouth bigot to post a vilification of his fellow citizen?" Wasserman said. "Of course not.

"If the model is a town meeting, well look what really happens in a town meeting, where there are rules of order and people actually stand up and talk fully identified. We've never had so-called unregulated discourse to the extent we allow it on the Web. And it's false to say that these people out there posting these hateful remarks represent 'the public.' No. They are people who are nuts."

Over the past year, a number of newspapers and large print chains have taken steps such as requiring readers who post comments to register their names or e-mail addresses, or installing "moderation" software that automatically eliminates posts that contain frequently used hate words or phrases.

Shelley Acoca, the reader exchange editor at the Miami Herald, said the Florida paper aggressively moved to change its policies earlier this year after becoming concerned about "some very ugly postings."

Acoca said that in January the paper hired a full-time comment monitor who reviews both new postings and those flagged by other readers, eliminating about 50 objectionable postings a day. In March, the Miami paper began requiring registration of all readers who want to post, and Acoca said that habitual offenders are disabled from using the system and cannot post.

Acoca said that the combined impact of these three steps reduced overall comments by almost one-half, but that viewing of comments dropped less dramatically. She believes that the quality of overall postings has improved because readers are no longer afraid they will be personally attacked for expressing controversial views.

"We took responsibility for our posted comments and our blogs because it was the right thing to do and it has worked out well," Acoca said.

Other newspapers and chains, The Courant among them, have stayed with a more open approach.

The comment boards at The Courant and other papers owned by the Tribune Co. are managed by Topix, a California Internet company. Chris Tolles, the CEO of Topix, said that the company employs four full-time monitors who respond to complaints about individual posts. Automated software eliminates other offensive messages.

But tougher measures such as requiring registration reduces posts so dramatically that newspaper websites lose the advantage of high traffic, Tolles says.

"In a free society, it's important that you have a chance to speak your mind and be anonymous," Tolles said. "It's unfortunate that our society still has a fair amount of folks who use this free speech to express racist remarks. But the solution isn't to take down the message boards because that speech will just migrate elsewhere on the Web."

Courant Editor Clifford Teutsch said the paper has explored and will continue to explore the question of balancing free speech against inappropriate Web postings.

"We have a prominent notice asking the public to alert us to abusive comments, and when we find them, we remove them," Teutsch said. "Many editors now have the authority to do that, and we plan to give more staff members that power. We will also explore whether we can do more monitoring of comments before anyone flags them, and whether some form of registration is feasible."

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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