Conflict and Context: Washington Post Blog Comment Cutoff Redux

Over at a group weblog I contribute to, the Poynter Institute’s E-Media Tidbits, there’s been an interesting discussion among media professionals about the recent decision by WashingtonPost.com to close comments on one of its weblogs. (I wrote about this here earlier.)

Steve Outing’s post “Taming the Comments Monster” attracted an intriguing array of possible alternate solutions. Steve Yelvington took that a bit further in “The Costs and Benefits of Interaction.”

However, I was most struck by a comment to Steve Outing’s post, offered by Terry Steichen. He reminds us of a core bit of context: Not all conflict springs from unreasonable or overreacting readers. Sometimes media organizations act in ways that invite vocal criticism.

Here’s what Terry said…

(Terry Steichen’s comment, reposted with permission.)

“It’s appropriate to look at technical and procedural means to control the publication of ‘off-the-wall’ comments.

“But, let’s not overlook the uniquely provocative nature of this particular incident. An editorial employee of the newspaper , and in particular one who’s apparent job it is to represent the interests of the readers (the ombudsman), clearly made a rather blatant error. The error – perhaps accidently, perhaps not – took a form suspiciously consistent with the ‘talking points’ on one side (that of Republicans seeking to spread the blame for the Abramoff scandal) of a bitter dispute.

“Though this published error was quickly identified and raised a lot of vocal outrage and concern, there was no (and even to date, to my knowledge, has not yet been any) formal correction forthcoming. Then, the employee involved, published a ‘response’ that failed to clearly acknowledge the nature and importance of the error.

“Quite understandably and very predictably this stimulated further outrage and concern. Then the forum’s manager (mainly Jim Brady) declared that the responses were too insulting and shut down the forum. Still more (very predictable) outrage and reaction.

“When we fashion rules (as we should), we also need to consider the nature of the triggering event. We have a responsibility to facilitate civilized discourse by controlling overreactions – but we also have some (and in this case, a lot of) responsibility for the triggering events themselves.

“If we want community interaction, when we make a mistake, we must admit it and do so quickly. It’s part of the price we must pay if we’re going to promote community interactivity.

“Another point: interactivity doesn’t come for free. If we’re not willing to apply the resources necessary to actively moderate these discussions, we have no business stimulating them.”

Well worth considering.

Now, to be honest, I haven’t looked into the minutiae of what led up to the decision to close comments on post.blog. I didn’t see the comments they considered so offensive. So I can’t really comment too much on the specifics of this case. As I said earlier, sometimes providing a “cooling off” period can help – but generally I think closing comments permanently is draconian and counterproductive.

However, I will say that, details of this one incident aside, what Terry says is something that every news organization should consider before it moves into any sort of conversational media – not just weblogs, but forums, e-mail lists, and any other options available now or in the future.

News organizations generally are accustomed to managing feedback via “letters to the editor” — a tightly controlled and selective process. And frankly, it seems to me that they’re generally comfortable with having complete control over how much discussion gets presented.

Any news organization (or any organization or individual) which absolutely needs a near-total sense of control or veto power over the conversation will inevitably encounter a great deal of difficulty with its forays into conversational media.

It’s worth considering these difficulties in advance, and deciding whether or how you can handle them. Conversational media definitely is not right for every person or organization. However, if you do choose to enter these waters, it helps to know how to navigate them. If you get caught in a sudden riptide, you can’t really yell “turn off the current!” You have to learn to deal with it, pull out of it, and learn from it.

UPDATE: I’m pleased to note that comments will be returning to post.blog, once they adapt their system to require a valid e-mail address for each commenter. I’ve posted the details today to Poynters E-Media Tidbits blog. That posting should appear there shortly.

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