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When Is an Online Comment Inappropriate?

By Andy Alexander

My Sunday column prompted quite a few e-mails and calls from readers who said it underscored the anything-goes nature of comments on The Post’s Web site. They also raised a common question: At what point is an online comment inappropriate?

For those who didn’t read it, my column was about an Aug. 12 story that focused on Clinton Cole, a former business development manager with General Dynamics Information Technology who was depicted as one of many people too ashamed to tell anyone but their family that they were laid off.

After Cole’s wife read the story on The Post’s Web site the morning it appeared, she angrily posted an online comment saying that rather than being laid off, he’d actually been fired. Then someone identifying herself as the couple’s 13-year-old daughter posted a comment saying her father has mental problems. Cole, who acknowledges his marriage is broken, insists neither is true.

I wrote that The Post should have removed the comments and looked into their accuracy before deciding whether they should reappear. Most readers who contacted me agreed, adding their view that online comment sections have become little more than a cesspool of malicious and mindless banter.

“These examples of nastiness are just the tip of the iceberg,” wrote a reader identifying himself as Steve from Minnesota. “I enjoy participating in blogs and comments sections, but have to wade through acres of crud to find thoughtful, respectful or relevant contributions.”

Another reader, Tom from Atlanta, asked: “What is abusive? Who is responsible for accuracy?”

Post readers must agree to the Web site’s “User Discussion and Submission Guidelines” before being permitted to post comments. The rules include prohibitions against comments that are “libelous or defamatory,” invade personal privacy or are “intended to intimidate or harass.” Legally, the commenters – not The Post – are responsible for what’s posted.

Raju Narisetti, the Post managing editor who oversees the Web site, believes in allowing great latitude, and so do I. Even when a “tough” comment is directed at an individual, he said, “I think the tendency is to leave it on.”

But he acknowledged that drawing the line on inappropriate comments is “something that we’re constantly struggling with.”

Hal Straus, who heads the group responsible for monitoring comments on the Post’s site, said that even with a comment that is “harsh” or “exaggerated,” it “wouldn’t reach our threshold for pulling it down.”

In the case of the comments by Cole’s wife and the 13-year-old, “before we would take that kind of thing down, we would have to know that it really is completely false and an unreasonable charge.”

My column argued that because the comments were so explosive, they should have been pulled down and investigated as soon as The Post spotted them. Cole’s wife could have been contacted quickly and asked if she had evidence of his firing (she subsequently provided The Post with a letter suggesting her husband was fired; her husband has countered with a copy of a company form saying he was authorized to seek an intracompany transfer). The daughter could have been contacted – either directly or through her mother – and asked for evidence of the mental problems. Clinton Cole could have been contacted for his reaction to the charges.

Straus said The Post’s policy is to take a “fairly hands off approach” in such situations. And he notes that in this case the comments told readers more than they had learned from the original story.

No question. But what if it’s not true?

Since the story appeared, The Post has looked into the charges. But after nearly two weeks, reporters and editors -- as well as the ombudsman -- still aren't absolutely sure they know the answers.

By Andy Alexander  | August 24, 2009; 1:15 PM ET
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Next: Setting a High Bar for Vitriolic Comments


I have often wondered why the WaPo feels it is appropriate to leave comments up calling for the overthrow of the gov't. Is this appropriate? It may be freedom of speech, but isn't it also fermenting rebellion and treason?

Personally I find it offensive to be called many names that I am called in response to comments I have left. Being called anti-Semetic when I am married to an Israeli-born American citizen is extremely offensive, but apparently name calling is okay.

Perhaps the WaPo needs to look at if the comments encourage debate or incite hatred. It might also help if the Post (and other media)actually stood up with facts in it's stories rather than encouraging misinformation.

Posted by: alysheba_3 | August 24, 2009 2:28 PM | Report abuse

It's amazing how folks always see "free speech" as a right for themselves and nobody else. The real question before deleting the comments should have been "were they true?" If he was in fact laid off, and he was in fact mentally deranged, then you shouldn't be censoring the wife and daughter.

That is my opinion, and it would also help if you folks would present more contrary opinions on the editorial page and not confine them to the comments section. Right now we are seeing an editorial page that looks more like a propaganda page than the kind of comment and counter-comment people got used to seeing on the post.

Putting a couple of token 'liberals' off in a corner of their own is not the same thing as actually airing all sides of stories.

If you would restore your newsroom with real staff, real fact checkers and investigators and real editors, rather than more adsmen, you'd get my vote.

Posted by: chris_holte | August 24, 2009 10:33 PM | Report abuse

"Legally, the commenters – not The Post – are responsible for what’s posted."
Afaik that's only half the truth. Let's imagine a case where a comment is outrightly illegal, for instance because it calls for harming someone, giving away the targets address and other relevant informations. That would be a federal crime, and if a website doesn't remove that comment after they noticed or got informed about it, they effectively endorse it and can be prosecuted for that, imho.

Hmm, maybe it would be a good idea to contact the law department of the post to get clear informations about which reader content the Post legally can't allow on its website. Because your view, that WaPo isn't "responsible for what’s posted" sure is true, but omitts the question of responsibility afterwards.

However, ok, there's more to this issue than legal considerations. And it's obvious that the Post doesn't have any interest in comments becoming a hotbed of obscenities, insults and personal attacks. WaPo isn't a tabloid, and the comment section should reflect that. The moderators should keep in mind that there are responsible for accomplishing this. Even the first ammendment doesn't give anyone the right to see his rants published at a private website!

Posted by: Gray62 | August 25, 2009 5:06 AM | Report abuse

To rid the comments section of form-letter screeds, please place a limit on the number of words/lines per comment. Also, please get a software program that automatically rejects comment submitted in ALL-CAP letters. (Any people with a disability that prevents using a keyboard shift key can put their comments in all-lowercase letters.)

Posted by: trialvisit | August 25, 2009 6:02 AM | Report abuse

When a posting is commonly understood to be a lie it should quickly be removed. Better yet, not posted at all.

Repeat postings should also be automatically removed, a simple procedure with today's technology.

Posted by: hfaulk01 | August 25, 2009 7:39 AM | Report abuse

When considering subjective review and monitoring of readers' comments there should be a separate standard for comments on states, governments, officials, and policies and a standard for comments on private citizens who are used as examples in human interest articles. There should be no restraints beyond the Post's general rules in the former and the efforts of organized groups to stop comments on some matters should be resisted.

In articles of human interest even though peripherally related to governments or policies, one wonders why it is appropriate for public comment at all and personal attacks on such private individuals should certainly not be permitted.

Posted by: Lazarus40 | August 25, 2009 8:14 AM | Report abuse

Don't be concerned with what people think because so few do any of it. EZ

Posted by: Dermitt | August 25, 2009 8:34 AM | Report abuse

"cesspool of malicious and mindless banter."

Yeah, cause you've got all these stupid, worthless, ignorant, idiotic, mysoginistic, prevaricating, know-nothing, knuckle-draggin', mouth-breathing, oxygen-deprived, ........

Posted by: Tomcat3 | August 25, 2009 10:33 AM | Report abuse

‘In the case of the comments by Cole’s wife and the 13-year-old, “before we would take that kind of thing down, we would have to know that it really is completely false and an unreasonable charge.”’

That is a pretty low standard, although it obviously makes it a lot easier on the intern/lackey who gets stuck with monitoring comments. I think in the case of a non-public person such as Mr. Cole, the standard should be “we would have to know that it really is true or a reasonable charge before leaving it up.”

A somewhat related point: you could improve the comments immensely (in my opinion) by limiting people to 2 or 3 comments per article. If someone cannot articulate their position in 2-3 comments, they probably haven’t thought about it enough to be interesting anyway.

I read the comments to see what other people think of the author’s opinion or reporting, not to read the interminable arguments back and forth between people who disagree with each other and can’t let it go.

Inevitably, these arguments degenerate into “Democrats/Liberals are stupid/gullible” and “Republicans/Conservatives are selfish/heartless” type arguments that are edifying to no one.

Posted by: hgillette | August 25, 2009 12:29 PM | Report abuse

In my opinion, the Democratic Party is one of empathy and common sense. Anyone who uses another person or group to hide behind and say or do cruel things to another is a manipulator and worse, a coward.

Robert Novak may have said many things that I did not agree with, but he was not a coward. Also, I would not wish him or his family anything but peace at this difficult and tragic time.

The older I get, and I am still young, I am amazed at the lack of common sense and poor judgement people show over and over again, every chance they get.

Posted by: BallyJamesDuff | August 25, 2009 8:27 PM | Report abuse

Let the Judeophobes write as they wish without restriction; these persons are quite fun to quash. The insouciant monitor yields the happiest posters. Moreover, restrictions on the expression of their vicious world view, one held by those with the morals of sewer rats, eventually turn on all, extirpating definite opinions, permitting the most bigoted innuendos.

Posted by: Martial | August 25, 2009 8:34 PM | Report abuse

Of all on-ine publications, NYT and WAPO seem to have the most civil and reasoned reader comments, but the bar is pretty low. I don't understand why any online property would allow allusions to death wishes for the President and other elected and appointed officials, and even the stupid incessant calls of Nazis, Hitlers, brownshirts, baby-killers, socialists, communists, fascists and other incendiary name calling. Finally, the comment sections are so often allowed to veer off into unrelated topics (and usually stupid ones at that). The folks that scream the loudest also seem to think we want to hear from them often. (Hint: we don't).

Isn't there a better way?

Posted by: chicago11 | August 25, 2009 9:54 PM | Report abuse

The Washington Post censoring system is moronic. For example, in the latest Parker op-ed she writes about the model who was called a 'sk@nk' online- she uses the word in the story, as it is vital to discussing the issue, but when commenters try to use it in the section, NOPE, they get bounced back and have to wait minutes to try and post again.

Posted by: ihatelogins | August 26, 2009 4:32 AM | Report abuse

Banter, in one word Andrew displays both his ignorance and my overwhelming frustration with the Post's editorial and reporting style and attitude.

Banter means "an exchange of light, playful, teasing remarks; good-natured raillery." There is nothing light, playful, good-natured or teasing in the remarks in most of the comments sections of this web site. (At least Andrew captured the spirit of his own columns and blogs, although I do not think his wit rises to the level of mindless banter.)

Words are supposed to be a writers palette. If Andrew and his editors are so blind to coloration they cannot distinguish vile, hateful spew from banter, then there is little hope for accurate and descriptive writing here in this paper (or web site).

At least Andrew got the mindless part correct.

Posted by: krush01 | August 26, 2009 4:36 AM | Report abuse

"Of all on-ine publications, NYT and WAPO seem to have the most civil and reasoned reader comments"

Come on, Chicago, have you really compared htose comment sections? The NYT is lighyears ahead of WaPo regardinbg civility and reason! On the other hand, their moderation can be annoying. Even totally reasonable comments, including no insults or onscenities at all, may not be published. It may be that they were not deemd interesting enough, or it may be that the backlog of comments there is simply too long, I don't know. But it's a nuissance.

However, the threads are a much better read than those at the Post. Here, much too often stupidity rules.

Posted by: Gray62 | August 26, 2009 4:55 AM | Report abuse

Krush, imho it's a bit unfair to anchor your criticism on one word that has been used in the wrong context. Alexander sure is not perfect (who is), but he tries hard to be fair, and to fulfill his role as the reader's advocate. This deserves some respect. After initial skepticism, I now see him as a real improvement over the too lame and partisan efforts of Debbie Howell.

Posted by: Gray62 | August 26, 2009 5:00 AM | Report abuse

Mr. Alexander, you seem to make the case that a tougher moderation would be better for the Post. I think there's no better evidence supporting your point than a comparison of comment threads for the eulogies of Senator Ted Kennedy:


Now, which thread looks like it belongs to a leading national newspaper, and which one leaves the impression it's from a blog of extremists, like redstate or democraticunderground?

Show these examples to the managers, and I'm sure there will be changes! This hothouse of rants and obscenities is a shame for the Post.

Posted by: Gray62 | August 26, 2009 5:31 AM | Report abuse

"have become little more than a cesspool of malicious and mindless banter."

Really? Or is that just an excuse for those who can not face the truth?

On several occasions, I have stood against those who want the easy way out and justify it with lies.

Now all they have to do is question my use of the facts.

Good by debate. Hello PC.

Posted by: GaryEMasters | August 26, 2009 6:11 AM | Report abuse

It's simple -- as long as the WaPo allows bloggers and Op-Ed pundits to mouth propaganda, insult, innuendo, and outright deceitful commentary then it should rightly allow the same from it's readership.

As long as it gives room for known racists like Glen Beck and his ilk to slam our elected president for no other reason than to simply be nasty, dissembling, and contemptuous in favor of powerful special interest groups, then the WaPo must expect the same level of insanity from it's readership.


Posted by: Frank57 | August 26, 2009 7:15 AM | Report abuse

Just read the small print under the comment text field again:
"Comments that include profanity or personal attacks or other inappropriate comments or material will be removed from the site."
Whuahaha! What a joke. Just look at the Kennedy threats: Nothing will ever be removed!
Really, Mr. Alexander, those rules aren't worth anything if they aren't enforced. And I don't understand what the Post pays Hal Straus and his posse for. Imho, if they're not doing anything anyway, the Post could get rid of that department and save that money.

And no misunderstanding, pls, Frank57 has a point. This shouldn't be about censoring the content of the comments, however weird sometimes. Instead, moderation should target on "comments that include profanity or personal attacks" and those where there's large consensus they're "inappropriate". But they should really do that, and not use the first ammendment as an alibi for refusing to work. After all, it's not their job to create new guideline, they have to enforce the existing ones. And if they won't do that, fire them.

Posted by: Gray62 | August 26, 2009 10:48 AM | Report abuse

Freedom of speech as defined in the Constitution generally prohibits government from any infringement on that right. But like any right or priviledge, it comes with a responsibility. The Founding Fathers were more than a little reticent about guaranteeing the freedoms laid out in the Bill of Rights for fear that extremist "factions" would abuse those rights for their own gain.

How prescient they were. It is abundantly obvious that the invasion of extremist factions in our town hall meetings is truly an abuse of the right of free speech because they tend to intimidate and shout down others who completely disagree with their opinions. As is ususal, most of these town hall events have become little more than a substitute for the sort of mindless venting that goes on on talk radio. They are in no way representative of the vast majority of Americans who may be concerned about what President Obama's health care plans contain but do not believe all of the wild, irrational conspiracy hogwash that is peddled at these town halls or on these blogs.

Posted by: jaxas | August 26, 2009 11:09 AM | Report abuse

I know it's probably too expensive to implement but a policy which examines comments before they are posted is a much better way to deal with this issue. It may be my imagination, but it seems that forums which require both attribution and approval provide a higher level of discussion and much less abusive, inflammatory garbage.

Posted by: DonAlbertson | August 26, 2009 11:25 AM | Report abuse

Worried about 'on line' comments?

Perhaps you need to worry about your censorship of stories the rest of the world is getting.

i.e. the shrieking of Israel about the story in a Swedish newspaper about Israeli
soldiers killing and harvesting organs of Palestinians.

This story given much credence by the arrest of several rabbis and Je ws in New Jersey

about organ trafficing from Israel.

As for the awful on line stuff, you deserve it, richly. By the biased, neocon stuff your
columnists and reporters contue to put out.

You think no one is noticing? HAVE you read the furious posts?

Posted by: whistling | August 26, 2009 1:02 PM | Report abuse

"it's probably too expensive to implement but a policy which examines comments before they are posted"

Well, according to Mr. Alexander, the Post already has lots of moderators (came as a surprise to me) who are doing nothing! And the NYT prescreens postings all the time, so it can't be too expensive. But it results in a long delay until comments are published, and even some totally reasonable comments won't get through. However, a comparison between comment threads here and there clearly shows the discussions at the Grey Lady are more thoughtful and less abusive.

I guess the best compromise lies somewhere in the middle.

Posted by: Gray62 | August 26, 2009 1:16 PM | Report abuse

Forget google search honey...
Keep them near your blessed heart. This could get fun and expensive too!

Posted by: Dermitt | August 26, 2009 2:04 PM | Report abuse

Don't compromise. Anything you want. That's what you need and you deserve what you need. No more no less.

Posted by: Dermitt | August 26, 2009 2:07 PM | Report abuse

Mr. Alexander, as a follow up to you story about the comments after Robert Novak's death, here some statements from the Kennedy thread:

Arlington Cemetary for this piece of trash?
This guy was an enemy of this great country , and for one I'm proud he is gone!
You libs can cry me a river , and I'll Pi$$ in it in celebration!!
Do you think Fat Teddy's estate is going to pay one thin dime of taxes now that he is a corpse?
I know we are going to have to listen to the MSM mourn this piece of human flotsam for the next week
Guy was garbage, as is the rest of his family and anyone dumb enough to defend him.
killer of Mary Jo Kopechne, sleazeball and sexual harasser, Drunk, and lousy speech-maker
Mourn this creep all you want. Then, get over it. The world is a much better place with him gone.
A brand new redressed Federal Government might very well dig up old Teddy and move him out of Arlington you realize.
All the heroes in Arlington are rolling over in their graves right now.
There will be one very well fertilized burial plot at Arlington.

Of course, I "reported" all of these, but as far as I can see, moderation hasn't deleted even a single comment in this thread yet. Well, once again, think of the damage for the reputation of the Washington Post. Is this less important than an experiment in free speech by Mr. Straus, the leader of your moderation team (which seems to sit totally idle)? And then, what are those comment rules good for? Several readers have voiced bewilderment about the hatespeech published at WaPo. Pls report this to management and let them decide.

Posted by: Gray62 | August 26, 2009 2:23 PM | Report abuse

It seems to me that the real problem here is a major deficiency in the original story. A basic principle of journalism should be that anytime anyone, particularly a non-celebrity, is referred to in a story, that person should be given an opportunity to comment. When the guy talked about the impact of his job loss on his wife and family, the wife should have been asked for her thoughts. Suppose the husband had said something apparently innocuous, like “My wife has been loving and supportive,” and the reporter included that quote in the story. If the family's friends and neighbors knew that the wife has filed for divorce, printing that comment makes it look like either the wife or the husband is lying, and it raises doubts about the accuracy of everything else in the story. And if the subject of the story had said “My wife won't talk to reporters, I'll tell you what she thinks,” the alarm bells should have rung. How hard would it have been for the lazy reporter to make one phone call to the wife? Maybe more information would have changed the arc of the story. Maybe the former employer should have been contacted too. If no one else had been “laid off” at the time this guy lost his job, that might have been a red flag. And if, say, 100 people had been laid off at the same time, checking in with a few of them might have added depth to the story. I often have the feeling that Post stories select facts to support a predetermined point of view, rather than letting all the facts speak for themselves.

Posted by: tourist01 | August 26, 2009 2:40 PM | Report abuse

This newspaper, the crumbling Washington Post,

left on line a post calling for a bomb to be dropped on an elected Scottish official.
Those who complained were ignored.

Nary a thought by paper nor reader that
we'd not be fond of such thing.

Or maybe in this increasingly rude, neocon infested rag, perhaps the screaming GOP thugs WOULD approve.

We're look like ugly lower class morons in the world, however much our leaders are now respected and liked. Bush lingers on.

Posted by: whistling | August 26, 2009 4:31 PM | Report abuse

Gary62 I respect your opinion, but I sincerely disagree. The word banter is a poor choice of words, which in a newspaper results from bad editing.

As I said it also reflects both an attitude toward and a complete misunderstanding of the nature of most of the worst comments. It dismisses truely hateful and IMUHO harmful words, words rejoycing in suicide that can only pain a family -- something that Andrew defended as acceptable. Revelling in the suicide of a man who failed in life is hardly BANTER. Anyone who thinks it is will accept anything in these columns and comments.

I will go further though regarding Andrew, he is a petty little bully who in his column has decended to personal attacks and threats on this reader in his column -- not much above many of the comments in the Novak and now the Kennedy sections. He knows what I am talkng, although I am sure he would dismiss it as banter.

Posted by: krush01 | August 26, 2009 10:17 PM | Report abuse

Alexander engaged in "personal attacks and threats" on you. krush? Where? Could you give some quotes, pls?

Posted by: Gray62 | August 27, 2009 7:30 AM | Report abuse

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