Des Moines Register columnist Rekha Basu wrote an interesting piece  for today’s paper on the foibles of unrestrained and anonymous commenting on newspaper web sites, such as that hosted by the Des Moines Register.
It was a very informative piece and I think can help give some people perspective into the issue of unmoderated and anonymous commenting, the impacts it can have on people when those who abuse the forum attack others, and the opinions of those that in particular are vitriolic in their content. The piece touches briefly on some of the driving issues behind how a newspaper determines its approach to filtering content. It was very effective in providing significant information, an excellent job of reporting from the various stakeholders.
The piece fails, however, in providing much in the way of opinion or depth in the discussion of first amendment rights, the responsibility that newspapers have to promote a safe community for those it serves, and the rights of the newspaper to control the content that it presents to the world. This was very surprising as I consider Basu to be very articulate at sharing her opinion (even though I often disagree with her),and yet today you got the feeling that she didn’t like the behavior, and that something should be done about it. And indeed she does offer an opinion near the end of the column about which of the options she sees available would best serve everyone.
Reka, to her credit, alluded to the fact that newspapers have to think in terms of income generated by internet traffic. And to a number of the intersecting concerns that should frame up the content for such a discussion. But we’re left with little in the way of thoughtful discussion to this end. It would have been interesting to hear some thoughts about how the First Amendment impacts the issue, how the traditional responsibilities of a community newspaper reflect on the electronic face of that organization, and finally a foundational statement of right or wrong with regard to the behavior in question. One of the key reasons I read Basu’s column is that I want to know what she thinks.
Basu offers the following as her view on what can be done:
As I see it, these are newspapers’ alternatives:
1. Do nothing. Continue to block posts that break the rules and let the process regulate itself, so people either become less sensitive or speak out more. The danger is that the civil ones get driven away.
2. Add staff to screen all posts in advance and monitor or moderate discussions – not likely given economic realities.
3. Get rid of newspaper-sponsored chats altogether – a drastic and undesirable move, since they do provide a valuable public forum.
4. Pass new laws to prosecute cyber bullies, like one proposed by Rep. Linda Sanchez of California, making it a federal crime to send a communication with intent to cause substantial emotional distress. That could be hard to determine, and enforce.
5. In my view, the best, most realistic approach, and the one most in keeping with journalistic standards, is to gradually start requiring people to provide their names, and begin matching those to e-mail addresses. It’s a safe bet many would stop lobbing missiles in stealth and start being more civil, and the conversations would improve.
It’s sad to see that a valid option, filtering software, is ignored. I’m sure that the Register uses some basic type of electronic filtering that looks for words that are just not permitted. What can also be done with the right kind of software is to further analyze the content to determine if it is providing offensive or threatening statements. This is not rocket science, and ignoring this as an alternative to number 2 in her list is unfortunate because conveys to many that this is an unworkable situation because of the current economic situation (understandable that adding staff for this work will be untenable when other staff are being released due to budget tightening).
We’ve discussed this topic before  and we are pleased that Rekha has taken the time to present the current situation and its impacts and potential solutions as she sees it. This seems to also be a good time to talk through all of the real philisophical issues the drive into the behavior, society’s tollerance or lack thereof toward this behavior, the real implications of a society that has a new outlet for agressive behavior after 60 years of liberal conditioning to avoid conflict and agression, the real classification of rights assigned to those involved in conducting the behavior and those who are recipients (read “victims”) of this behavior, and the long term affects all of this can have on our society.
I will state what should be obvious and a possible start for this conversion. The Second Amendment provides us the right to bear arms, that is, to own weapons (guns, mostly), but does not give us the right to use those weapons to kill without cause. The First Amendment gives us the right to express ourselves freely, but not to the point of slander, libel, or physical or emotional harm (you cannot shout “Fire!” in a crowded theater unless there is one). What then should be our response to those that believe they have the right to threaten or engage in abusive language toward another person in a public forum? What are the rights and responsibilities of an organization like the Des Moines Register to monitor and control the publishing of such content?
Rekha, thanks for looking at this topic. I think it’s time we had a serious discussion about where to go from here.