[Guest post by DRJ]
Note: An earlier post on this subject is here.
a one-post now a two-post blog called Investigate the Media claimed that the San Francisco Chronicle “activated a devious system by which it deceives commenters on its website, SFGate.com.” It also claimed commenters (apparently referring to conservative commenters) are “silenced for ideological reasons” or “because they strike too close to home — pointing out flaws in the article’s reporting or writing itself, or ethical or moral misdeeds on the part of the Chronicle editors or management.”
These are serious claims and, to the Chronicle’s credit, an online editor for the Chronicle responded promptly. Scroll down and click *More* for the full text of the response from Eve Batey, Deputy Manager-Online for the San Francisco Chronicle. (Ms. Batey was also interviewed here.) My summary of the main points from Ms. Batey’s response are set forth in the indented and bolded sections below, with additional thoughts following each summary:
The Chronicle’s online editors do not moderate every comment. Instead, they rely on commenters to report abusive comments.
It makes sense that the editors can’t moderate every comment – the website would lose its interactive quality if that happened – but this may be part of the problem. San Franciscans voted 85% for Kerry and 15% for Bush in the 2004 election. If most SFGate users are liberal, there is a greater likelihood that the users will object to conservative comments and flag them as offensive.
For instance, if there are 8 liberal commenters for every 2 conservative commenters, theoretically there are 4 times as many chances that someone will flag the conservative comment as offensive. Of course, the liberal commenters may flag other liberal comments or the 2 conservative commenters may flag all 8 liberal comments as offensive, but the odds don’t support either option happening on a regular basis.
Thus, the pool of flagged comments the moderators actually look at are more likely to be conservative and, as a result, conservative comments are more likely to be subject to deletion. Think of it as the online equivalent of profiling.
The online editors do not discourage diverse views and do not want to, either from a philosophical or from a business perspective.
I agree it doesn’t make sense to eliminate controversy if you’re in the newspaper business. In fact, the editors probably want diverse views because conflict drives up interest. However, even though it’s good business to encourage controversy, there is a flip side. The Chronicle may not want to irritate its mostly-liberal readers with too many conservative comments. However, until we can see the deleted comments, I accept the Chronicle’s statement that it handles comments in a fair manner.
The commenter who blogs at Investigate the Media was banned and/or had comments deleted because he “ran afoul” of the Chronicle’s Terms and Conditions.
To follow up on this, we requested copies of the deleted comments from the Chronicle and the blogger who posted on this at Investigate the Media. The blogger has not responded at his/her website. And despite the SFGate website’s Terms and Conditions that grant exclusive ownership of the contents to the Chronicle, the Chronicle has refused to provide copies of the deleted comments without permission from the commenter. However, Ms. Batey has reached out to this blogger at his/her website and asked permission to share the comments. The blogger maintains the “Chronicle admits to deceptive comment-deletion policy, offers bizarre excuse, then lies again.”
So what do we know? The Chronicle acknowledges that the SFGate commenter (jimjams) who posted Investigate the Media is a registered commenter. At his/her blog, jimjams provided one example where a comment was deleted by SFGate.
That comment was apparently deleted because jimjams called the Chronicle staff writer an “idiot.” Does every commenter who calls someone an “idiot” (or similar terms) get banned at the Chronicle or does this only apply to comments about a Chronicle staff writer? Was the deletion related to the critical tone of the comment or to a pattern of inappropriate comments?
It’s hard to tell without access to the deleted comments. I hope the parties will provide copies of the comments … and, in the meantime, I have to wonder why they won’t.
Update 11/30/2007 @ 5:20 PM PST: Ms. Batey corrects my statement regarding the single comment posted by jimjams: “[T]he comment you see on ITM referring to a Chronicle reporter as an idiot wasn’t a deleted comment. Jimjams had actually been blocked for some time before that day, and the “idiot” comment was one of his/her non-Terms violating comments that was also hidden from view by the use of the tool. That, right there, is why using the “block user” function was the wrong decision.” Thanks for bringing this correction to my attention and I’ve noted the correction by striking through two sentences, above.
The Chronicle requested but the software vendor was unable to provide a feature that specifically noted when and why comments were deleted.
Ms. Batey provided a lengthy explanation of the technology issues, and I encourage you to click *More* and read her complete response. In short, the Chronicle previously used a “block user” function that “blocks all comments made by a user from view by anyone but themselves (upon login), and replaces those comments with a deletion message, in a way that simply deleting a single comment would not.” She asserts that this function has been used sparingly and only with commenters who, in the moderators’ view, repeatedly violated the rules. The “block user” function was chosen in an effort to promote transparency because it gave some indication that a comment had been deleted or blocked. In practice, however, this function did not seem transparent. Ms. Batey apologized for that and noted the Chronicle editors have stopped using the “block user” function.
I appreciate Ms. Batey’s discussion of things that work and don’t work in moderating comments. There is a learning curve in blogging – at least there has been for me – and I’m impressed with her willingness to acknowledge a lesson learned and to make changes as a result.
Click *More* for the full text of the email from Eve Batey, the San Francisco Chronicle’s Deputy Managing Editor – Online.