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The Island has a new comment policy

Submitted by on 1, October 21, 2010 – 4:45 am24 Comments

During the nearly three years I’ve been offering news on the Internet, one of the biggest challenges I’ve faced is how to manage reader comments.

In the newspaper world I came from, the rules were obvious: People could offer their take on what was reported by submitting a letter to the editor. The letters were edited for space, relevance and clarity and published, sometimes a week or more after the news the letter writer was commenting on. But in the brave new world of the Web, expectations are different.

Here, I can offer readers the opportunity to chat with each other and with me on events of the day – an opportunity that dead trees just don’t provide. But that opportunity is a dual-edged sword. At a newspaper, people expect that their letters will be edited if they are published at all, and that they are required to own the words they write by signing their name at the bottom. On the Web, some believe it’s their right to say whatever they want – and that they shouldn’t be held to that same level of accountability.

For the last few years I have tried to walk a middle way on comments, pulling or editing comments I felt were libelous, personal attacks, trolling or just in poor taste instead of publishing everything that came in, but allowing people to write comments using screen names. I did this hoping that I could maintain open, honest discussions on the stories and columns I ran – and also maintain, frankly, the traffic that comments provide. Some readers said I should take a lighter hand with comments while others suggested I get rid of them entirely, running a more newspaper-style letters section. And then Friday happened.

Scanning the comments late Friday afternoon I noticed a missive from Richard, claiming he had heard that a mayoral candidate was dropping out the race. Frantically, I dialed the candidate, then his campaign manager, both of whom quickly assured me this wasn’t true. I was in a place I find myself all too often when comments are concerned: Should I publish it with a comment of my own containing the correct information, or drop it entirely?

Ultimately, I think our mission here at The Island is to offer the most accurate information possible, and to be as accountable as possible to you, the reader. And I feel we have gotten to a point where some of the things that have been published in our comments section run counter to our effort to do that. So effective today, The Island has a new comment policy: We will no longer publish comments that aren’t offered with a full name and valid e-mail address. Starting Monday, we will no longer publish comments by people who have not registered with the site (so go ahead and get that out of the way now).

I understand some of you will be frustrated with the new rules, and that they will have an impact on traffic. But I think the quality of the information The Island provides is more important than the number of hits we get. I’m also hopeful that requiring people to use their real names to comment on the site will remind everyone that they are talking to their friends and neighbors, and not some anonymous avatar, and that this will impact the tone of some of the discussions that take place here.

Meanwhile, if you have a tip to share, you can pass it along the old fashioned way, either by calling me at 910-7785 or e-mailing me at michele@theislandofalameda.com. And as always, thank you for reading.

24 Comments »

  • Ron Salsig says:

    I also come from the newspaper world. And I heartily endorse your new policy on comments.

    This is not a chat room, where personal attacks are the norm, straying far from context.

    If the reader supplying comment does not want his or her name attached to the comment, then why comment at all? Take responsibility for your words.

    Ron Salsig

  • Barbara Kahn says:

    thank you. I am worried that the animosity will continue after the election if the angry group do not have their way. It will be nice to have a local news site that provides clean, objective information in a timely way since the two local papers are often llimited by time and publication deadlines, as well as advertising policies to keep us informed.

  • Adam Gillitt says:

    This is great, Michele! I am glad you’re taking the lead on this in a sensible, constructive way. It will be fascinating to see who comes out from behind their anonymous monikers, and whose disinformation and propaganda disappears.

    It’s especially a refreshing contrast to the way other blogs handle commenting, like the CADC-run/SunCal-sponsored blog at the SF Gate. Their solution is to continually run irrelevant monologues and to censor anyone who isn’t in lockstep with them.

  • John Piziali says:

    Michele. I’m in, I think this is the best way for you to run this site. I agree with Mr. Salsig this is not a chat room this is more like a letter to the editor page.

  • Michele, I look forward to seeing how this works out. We’re working on getting SFGate to change their commenting policy/moderation.

    Once again, Mr. Gillitt continues to spread non-factual information. I’ve just sent you an email with the contact folks at SF Gate who can confirm that the writers on the site have no access or control over the comments that are left there.

    Mr. Gillitt’s poor behavior got him noticed by SFGate staff, who, without any input from the In Alameda writers, decided to ban him from the site (again).

  • Congratulations on a smart and brave move, Michele. I’ve been trying to convince the Express to do the same thing for years.

  • Adam Gillitt says:

    Re John White

    Censorship at a Hearst newspaper (again)?

    The CADC disrupting the Democratic process (again)?

    The STF sending out direct mailers attacking city officials (again) ?

    …and you work for all of them.

    You are the smug, self-satisfied, corrupt reason I am running for City Council, and why Alameda needs the voice of its Citizens in Alameda government, not more members of your SunCal-sponsored clubs.

  • Jen Laird says:

    Good for you! And good for Alameda!

  • Susan Davis says:

    I’d like to correct a few of the factual errors in Adam’s press release (to which he links in his comment, above).

    First, as John Knox White notes, the bloggers on SFGate have neither the authority nor the technological ability to delete comments or block users. Those decisions and actions are made by SFGate moderators.

    In fact, despite months of personal attacks and harassment, John, Lauren, and I hadn’t even been reporting Adam’s posts to the moderators. It was when they saw his posts — because other users were reporting him — that they decided to block his account yesterday.

    Second, I have no affiliation with the CADC. I’m not a member. I’ve never been to one of their meetings. I’ve never met or talked to most of the officers of the club — I wouldn’t know Jim Oddie if I bumped into him in a line at Trader Joe’s. I don’t even think I’m on the CADC’s press list.

    Finally, I have made no endorsements for City Council on In Alameda (or elsewhere). I did say something nice about Rob Bonta in a post about the Firefighter’s Pancake Breakfast last summer — and I stand by that. But I haven’t endorsed anyone officially and I don’t plan to.

  • Adam Gillitt says:

    Mrs Davis, rather than being a coward and hiding behind censorship at the SF Gate, since you seem to be attempting to engage here, please explain this to me and the readers of this blog:

    Why would you devote an entire column railing against alleged sock puppets, and in favor of civility, which is a noble goal, and then immediately devote your next column to the words of commenter “a94501er?” His account was removed from the SFGate for incessant personal, ad hominem, off-topic attacks against commenters, but then his account was suddenly reinstated, against the clearly posted SFGate TOS you and John White mention.

    Furthermore, this “a94501er” seems to be one of your closest friends: you always answer his questions immediately, this is not the first post you have written based on his words, and you seem available to respond to his needs and concerns more readily than just about any other reader of your club blog.

    If you are what you claim to be, how do you reconcile these categorically opposing messages coming from each side of your mouth- “Be nice or I’ll have you censored, but if I like you, you get a free pass to attack anyone we don’t like?”

    If you think censorship is the Right way, I have an extra Sharpie I gladly give you.

  • Susan Davis says:

    Adam,

    I actually don’t want to engage here.

    I just wanted to point out that your press release contains errors.

    But I will say this: I don’t believe censorship is the “right way.” I believe that people should be allowed to express their opinions on blogs — and that is why so many comments with differing opinions stay up at In Alameda.

    However, I also believe that people should comply with SFGate’s Terms of Service (to which they agree upon registering on the site). As I understand it, your account was blocked by the moderators because you violated those terms.

    Again, this decision was not made by Lauren, John, or me.

    I’m not willing to discuss a94501er (who, by the way, is not my “closest friend” — I don’t even know that user’s real name). Whatever happened with that account is between him or her and the moderators. But the reason I highlighted his/her post was not because of favoritism or because I’m “more responsive” to some users’ needs than others, but because it was the perfect lead-in to a story I wanted to write about fall-themed events on the Island.

    This is as far as I’m willing to take this exchange with you. If you have more questions about your SFGate account, please contact the moderators.

  • Adam Gillitt says:

    Please refer to any of Mrs Davis’ posts on the SF Gate.

    You will see how little she wishes to engage.

    Mrs Davis is only interested in monologuing like a cartoon villain and squelching anyone who does not agree with everything she says.

    I have no further questions.

  • Dave Hart says:

    AG:

    I have had more than a few posts that agree w/ Susan removed from SFGate because I expressed myself quite bluntly (some thought rudely). So much for your “censorship” caterwauling…

    And ya know what? I roll with it. The terms of service are the terms of service. It’s Hearst’s site, so Hearst’s rules.

    Normally I charge a fair bit for my advice, but you can have this bit for free:

    Get your own blog. Run it as you see fit. Nobody is stopping you — except you.

  • Adam Gillitt says:

    Even better, Mrs Davis:

    This is my official request for you to please put me in touch with these mythical moderators at the SF Gate you speak of and have them explain to me who authorized censoring my posts and why my account was censored, and additionally, why your friend “a94501er”‘s was deactivated and then reinstated.

    I have tried to contact people at Hearst/The Chronicle/SF Gate and been stonewalled. Why not be part of the solution, Mrs Davis, instead of passing the buck and claiming not to be part of the problem? That would show that you really care about this problem and are not, in fact, censoring people you disagree with, and just trying to tell one, biased side of a story.

  • Susan Davis says:

    Adam,

    SFGate users can contact the moderators (and other support staff) at:

    http://www.sfgate.com/feedback/

  • Adam Gillitt says:

    Your closed-minded displays of “engagement” are telling, Mrs Davis. It shows how desperately you cling to censorship to promote your monologues and your hopelessly biased idea of the truth.

    You, John White and Lauren Do, your dispensation of truth and attempts to manipulate the Citizens of Alameda utterly disgust me, as they do anyone who pays attention to your incessant shilling for every issue.

    Michele sets an example here on the Island that you could learn from. She engages with the community, researches all sides of an issue thoroughly and presents them as fairly as possible, takes responsibility for what she writes, and answers to her critics and supporters alike. That is something that can never be said about ‘In Alameda,’ except on the occasions when you link to her coverage of issues that happen not to conflict with your interests.

  • Lauren Do says:

    Hi Michele:

    I think your new commenting policy is terrific, and I don’t think that it will make a dent in your traffic numbers at all.

    However, it appears that even your full name, valid email address policy still hasn’t prevented some commenters from proffering inaccurate information that I believe only you correcting will settle the issue in their minds for good.

  • Hey everyone,

    One of the reasons I am adopting new, stricter comment rules is indeed because I don’t want to be the place where people come to engage in name-calling and personal attacks, and come Monday I will be looking at the comments I do get more closely to ensure they don’t contain inaccurate information. The site is supposed to be a community service intended to keep people informed, and as I said above the fold, I was really feeling like some of what ran in the comments section went counter to that. So let’s try to stick to the facts and steer clear of name calling, please.

  • Winkie Campbell-Notar says:

    Michelle,

    I totally support your new policy. Yes, we are speaking to our neighbors and friends. We all deserve respect and courtesy, even in disagreement.

  • Jen Laird says:

    I encourage everyone who likes to comment here on The Island to consider subscribing (cost is $25, I think).

    It seems to me Michele’s workload is going to increase quite a bit with this new comments policy.

    She gives us a space to “discuss” issues in our community. If you appreciate that, and if you can, please think about subscribing.

  • Dontaro Sugiyama says:

    I thought comments were going to be moderated, so we don’t provide another venue for people to spew misinformation and indulge in personal attacks (now that they’ve been blocked from posting on sfgate). But that does not appear to be the case from reading the above comments by Adam.

    What gives?

    • Hi Dontaro,

      Thanks for your comment. I am indeed trying to make the comments section here a place where people feel more comfortable offering their views without fear of being attacked, and I think the community’s sense of what is acceptable here and what isn’t will play a big role in what gets posted and what gets pulled. So I invite everyone to e-mail me if you see something you think is unacceptable up here – and that’s trolling, personal attacks, inaccurate information – at michele@theislandofalameda.com.

  • Susan Davis says:

    Getting back to Michele’s post, I think this comment thread actually serves as a microcosm of the many complexities of the on-line commenting world.

    I.e., some people might interpret one user calling another “a coward,” “a censor,” “hopelessly biased,” a “cartoon villain,” “close-minded,” a “shill,” “irrelevant,” “manipulative,” and “disgusting” (language that we’ve seen on this thread over the last 24 hours) as a “personal attack.”

    Which would mean that a site that has a stated policy against “personal attacks” would be justified in taking such comments down.

    But if the blogger or moderator takes the posts down, users may claim they are being censored.

    It’s a difficult situation and one that we’ve struggled with a lot at In Alameda over the last few months. I’d be curious to know what other Island readers think about the issue.

  • Richard Hausman says:

    Bravo, Michele! With the anonymity of the internet, it is easy to make up a story out of whole cloth and have someone believe it, while others pass it on to unsuspecting readers. As Ladd Ehlinger, Jr., a blogger about filmmaking has said, “The other danger of anonymity is that it tends to open the floodgates of the nastier parts of one’s ID. It becomes acceptable to say anything or do anything, for there are no consequences. As a result, you may be tempted to attack people in a way that you would never do in person, and draw other people online into your fight, and ultimately cause a conflagration.”

    There’s a terrific piece on the impact of anonymity at http://www.resourcesforlife.com/docs/item2560

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