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Columbia Missourian

DEAR READER: We're tweaking our comment policy, with clarity in mind

By Joy Mayer
January 13, 2012 | 6:00 a.m. CST

Dear Reader,

When Missourian reporter Steven Rich wrote a story in November about the new downtown sales tax, reader (and frequent commenter) John Schultz asked a great question in an online comment. His question led to new questions, more reporting, conflicting information from government officials — and a second story.

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Mr. Schultz's comment sent our journalists in a new direction in a matter of civic affairs. He made our reporting more complete.

When two members of Marching Mizzou died in a car accident in June, our reporters looked for details about the accident. They also searched for stories — about the lives of the young men and about the mourners left behind. The story we published the day after the accident provided basic information. What evolved in the online comments went far beyond the storytelling we were able to do as journalists.

First, Karen-Ann Williams, who was first at the scene of the accident and tried to help the men, described her experience. Then, Nina Gardner, a friend's mother who had just spent the weekend with them in Texas, wrote to describe the students' last few days. Williams contributed to the thread again, to thank us for the information we provided, build on the details we'd shared and offer condolences. "Even though we did not know Jeremy, Sean and Ryan, we'll never forget them," she wrote. 

Do you have chills yet? It keeps going.

Sheryl Lockridge wrote this: "I am a friend of Jeremy's mother. I do not know if you have heard from her yet or not. I am keeping this information for her. It will give her great comfort at some point." Lockridge talked specifically about how happy the young man's mother would be to know more about his trip to Texas, including a gift he had bought that was intended for his mother.

Complain about online comments with news stories all you want. Despite the unfortunate turn they can sometimes take, my love affair with them is strong.

The Missourian's community outreach team did quite a bit of work with comments this fall. In response to a problem with spam, we put in place a system in which new users have their first comment approved. (I'm thrilled with how it's working, by the way.) To help us update the way we moderate comments, we asked you to weigh in on what kinds of comments you consider acceptable. (Thank you so much to the 100-plus people who took the time to respond.) Our executive editor, Tom Warhover, wrote a column addressing some reader complaints about our moderation.

And over the period of a few months, we took a close look at our comment policy. We reviewed dozens of policies from other news organizations, observed the kinds of conversations that resulted from those policies and talked a lot about what kind of discourse we want to encourage at the Missourian.

As it turns out, there's a lot about our policy that seems to be working, and we decided that no sweeping changes were needed. There are definitely improvements we hope to see in the tone and diversity of our online comments, but we think those changes will be more likely to occur if we as journalists modify our participation in the comments.

If you read our updated comments policy, you'll notice no major changes. You still are asked to use a first and last name. You still can't make a personal attack on another commenter. This sentence is, I think, a useful addition to the policy: "You may disagree with another person’s ideas or opinions, but you may not disparage them on a personal level."

We updated the structure to make the policy easier to understand, and to emphasize at the top the points that were most important to us. We added some links to resources that help explain what we mean. (My favorite is the one to the FCC guidelines on obscenity, indecency and profanity.)

The more important update we're making is to our newsroom's participation in online comments. My goal is for our staff of journalists to more actively respond to you — to encourage discussion, answer questions, do some fact checking and ask you questions.

News is at its best when it's an ongoing conversation, not a lecture.

As always, I'll be eager for your feedback and thoughts, whether you are inclined to comment publicly or prefer not to. Comment below. Email me at mayerj@missouri.edu. Call me at 882-8182. Set up a time to come chat and see the newsroom. You're also always welcome at our 11 a.m. weekday news meetings, which are held in the middle of the newsroom and are open to the public.

I look forward to hearing from you.

Joy