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DEAR READER: Respect, constructive debate are cornerstones of comment policy

Thursday, October 20, 2011 | 10:46 p.m. CDT

Dear Reader,

The rules concerning comments on ColumbiaMissourian.com are pretty simple: Use your real name. Don’t make personal attacks or attacks on race, creed or religion. Nudity, profanity and illegal material aren’t allowed.

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We invite you to report comments you think violate that policy. The staff doesn’t remove the offending comment automatically, though. Judgment comes into play.

Often, Missourian editors see and remove a troublesome comment before it is in circulation very long, whether it gets flagged as inappropriate or not.

There were more than 900 comments on ColumbiaMissourian.com in the first 19 days of October, and 22 of those were removed.

In recent weeks, some of our most frequent commenters have said editors are overly sensitive and uneven in judgment. I’ll take up a few of the criticisms here. 

Criticism No. 1: Editors are too quick to take offense. The Missourian mentality is more Family Circus comic panel rather than "South Park" lampoon.

Bring up a commenter’s background, and you’re likely to get yanked. Say, “Warhover is stupid,” and watch out for the hook. But you can say, “Warhover’s policy is stupid” all day long. Criticize ideas, not individual people. Polite is in at ColumbiaMissourian.com. Respect is, too.

Tit for tat, by the way, isn’t the right way to report a personal attack. Let us know instead. When one comment gets back at another, we end up reading this kind of race to the gutter. That just leads to more comments being removed.

Criticism No. 2: It wasn’t this way before. Does the interpretation of personal attack depend on the editor on duty? Sure, in the same way that one baseball umpire might tend to call low strikes and another high. The basic definition of the strike zone is the same, but humans make the calls.

In our newsroom, a handful of editors make the calls on comments; it’s not a single person. Some of those editors weren’t working in our newsroom six months ago, and we’re in constant conversation about what’s allowable. Usually, comments are discussed with other editors before being removed. The decisions aren’t arbitrary.

Criticism No. 3: They pick on certain people.  There’s no list and no political agenda. But those who get flagged often tend to get more of our attention.

Criticism No. 4: You’re impinging on our right of free speech. Well, yeah – if you think your rights allow you to say anything, anywhere, anytime. That’s just not the case.

If you want to set up a website, which most anyone can do these days, then you can establish your own rules for who can comment. You can even set no rules at all and arbitrarily remove anyone’s comments because they displease you.

That First Amendment prevents the government from establishing laws “abridging the freedom of speech.” The government can’t stop you, most of the time. (Decades of legal precedent show that the right of free speech isn’t absolute anyway. Another letter for another day.)

But ColumbiaMissourian.com is not the government.

I’m grateful to the group of citizens from two years ago who took the time every month to meet with me and with other staff. The Readers Board often talked about comments. They represented many people who don’t write but who read and who care deeply.

Then and now, they helped me think about our policies. I know I’ll need to keep them in mind as I read the online comments on this letter.

For those who take up the pen and argue with the policy, or with my views on it, please give us your recommendations. The community outreach team is reviewing policies at newspapers, talking with people here in Columbia and coming up with proposals for changes. 

But no personal attacks, please.


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Comments

Michael Williams October 21, 2011 | 9:43 a.m.

I'm ok with what you are currently doing.

I've been yanked a few times and all were deserved since each was a violation of your policy. I don't think you go overboard; if anything, I think you are too lenient but that's just a personal opinion. Finally, you are quite correct that First Amendment rights do not apply here; it's a common misconception for some, mainly those who need a full-time hall monitor anyway.

I have only one suggestion: When a comment is flagged by we hoi polloi, how about providing a small text box where we can state "why" we flagged the comment in the first place?

Or would that just exacerbate the argument, lol?

(Report Comment)
Charles leverett October 21, 2011 | 9:50 a.m.

This simple letter makes me respect the Columbia Missourian much more (along with not charging me to view news online). I love the response to Criticism No. 4, as people seem to forget this.

(Report Comment)
mike mentor October 21, 2011 | 10:10 a.m.

Keep up the good work!
I agree with Michael. If I had any complaints it would be that a couple of commentors seem to not get yanked enough...

(Report Comment)
Sally Willis October 21, 2011 | 10:20 a.m.

I have also had a couple comments removed, though I knew they would. I agree with the policy and I think it's very fair. I just think some people who continually harass threaten and mock and belittle others should maybe be permanently be blocked. Some people may not want to comment even though they might have something important to say because of previous harassment.

(Report Comment)
Abigail Williams October 21, 2011 | 10:27 a.m.

Sally, what a shame that is. I know that you always have something important to say, whether it agrees with any of the facts presented in the article or not. I look forward to reading the opinions of people who are as articulate, educated, and thoughtful as yourself.

(Report Comment)
Abigail Williams October 21, 2011 | 10:31 a.m.

I also believe that it was right for you to personally attack someone because they were mocking you. There should even be an exception to the rule in cases like that. The policy should state that no personal attacks are to be allowed except when someone mocks the important things you have to say.

(Report Comment)
Sally Willis October 21, 2011 | 10:58 a.m.

Abigail Williams It's funny you came about when Paul disappeared and you comment as much as he did and are as abrasive opinionated and insulting as he was. Here you are bringing something up and you were not even here then. Things that make you go hummmmm? Welcome back Paul!

(Report Comment)
Sally Willis October 21, 2011 | 11:26 a.m.
This comment has been removed.
John Schultz October 21, 2011 | 11:52 a.m.

Gee Sally, seems like you're approaching the "continually harass threaten and mock and belittle others" standard yourself with a couple comments here. Part of the I knew my comments would get yanked, but I want to set the tone strategy you mentioned in your first comment on this thread?

If the editors check out Abigail's bonafides, they should check out yours as well. I don't know if you would say to Abigail or Paul what you've said here, but I would tell you this face-to-face. That's what people should strive for when commenting.

(Report Comment)
Abigail Williams October 21, 2011 | 11:58 a.m.

Why Sally, I'm deeply offended. I offer you moral support against the mean bullies that keep you from presenting your valuable opinion and you say bad things about me! How could you do that? I've said nothing but kind words and I even supported your decision to personally attack the mean bullies. I hope they take all the mean bullies and burn them at the stake!

(Report Comment)
Sally Willis October 21, 2011 | 12:09 p.m.

As do I :)

(Report Comment)
mike mentor October 21, 2011 | 1:36 p.m.

@Sally
Too bad we can't "occupy" Pauls computer :-)

(Report Comment)
Abigail Williams October 21, 2011 | 1:58 p.m.

Paul died.

http://hosted.ap.org/dynamic/stories/U/U...

It killed him that he wasn't going to be able to send anymore people to Iraq.

(Report Comment)
Sally Willis October 21, 2011 | 2:16 p.m.
This comment has been removed.
Abigail Williams October 21, 2011 | 2:23 p.m.
This comment has been removed.
Sally Willis October 21, 2011 | 3:57 p.m.

Abby don't be to upset you can still send them to Iraq till the end of the year.

(Report Comment)
Sally Willis October 21, 2011 | 4:06 p.m.

And I did not personally attack anyone I just asked if that was the same person and that might explain why he didn't like the police. I didn't commit the acts. I was just wanting to know if that had to do with current hostility and maybe try to figure out if that's just a personality trait that individual has. I mean some people just have to knock others down to feel good, and some have anger issues I just wanted to know if that was the case here.

(Report Comment)
Abigail Williams October 21, 2011 | 6:13 p.m.

Honestly I don't know why that Paul would question the actions of a policeman or a prosecutor. We both know that they always act in your best interest and don't harm those who don't deserve it.
http://www.columbiamissourian.com/wire/a...

(Report Comment)
Abigail Williams October 21, 2011 | 6:17 p.m.

And Sally, I also forgot to tell you how much I admire your ability to sort through the facts presented by the articles you read and decide a person's guilt without having been near any of the people involved. Hopefully one day I will have your skills.

(Report Comment)
Michael Williams October 25, 2011 | 10:54 p.m.

With all these spam attacks, it just isn't worth posting here. Threads and trains-of-thought are destroyed, as is the all-important "latest comments" section.

Perhaps the spam comes from elsewhere, or perhaps it comes from a disgruntled local poster trying to run us off or get even. I don't know.

I'll be back once the Missourian fixes the problem.

(Report Comment)
Joy Mayer October 26, 2011 | 7:47 a.m.

Michael, I share in your irritation, and I apologize for the inconvenience.

We're working on it. If you'd like me to email you when we get it fixed, I'd be happy to. Let me know here or at mayerj at missouri.edu.

I do hope you stick around, or at least check back with us.

Joy Mayer
director of community outreach
Columbia Missourian

(Report Comment)

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