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Blowback: Do comments scare off sources?

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It took time and patience, but eventually I got Michael Sutherland to talk to me. I was interested in writing a piece about debt collection during the Great Recession. But I wanted to tell the story not just through the eyes of consumers—as those stories are often told—but from the perspective of debt collectors themselves.

The only problem was that very few in the industry would talk to me. They were worried about how they would be portrayed because, let’s be honest, the industry’s reputation is as bad as they come. They’re more known for harassing calls than for the money they pump back into the economy or the customers they help rescue from under a pile of bills. And they figured I was out to tell the same old story.

Finally Sutherland agreed. He was hesitant and told me so. But I assured him I was committed to being fair and accurate—and telling the collectors’ side of the story. And so, with some reluctance, he let me into his firm. I interviewed him, his managers, his employees. I spent hours there, trying to get a sense, as best I could, of what it’s like to call people all day asking for money at a time when so many are hurting. The result was, I thought, a balanced story that took readers inside a debt collection firm.

After the story appeared, I sent Sutherland an email asking him what he thought. He wasn’t happy with the drawing that accompanied the story, a couple of sharks circling a woman. And he wasn’t happy with the comments that readers posted on washingtonpost.com about the story.

You could hardly blame him. The Post's guidelines say that the site bans any "inappropriate" content and defines that as anything that is "libelous or defamatory," " is obscene, pornographic, or sexually explicit," and "contains or advocates illegal or violent acts" among other things. But among the comments were these hard-to-stomach posts:

“What scum....Scam-acne-face-Sutherland and all his little minions, scum....special place in Hell for them,” wrote someone who went by the screen name griffmills.

“They should be hung up by their private parts and shot,” wrote billdinva2.

Sutherland said such comments were “why I was so hesitant in doing an interview” in the first place. “Lesson learned," he wrote, "I will never allow for another interview.”

Jay Ferrari also came under attack on the Post site's comments board after he was the subject of a story by reporter Michael Rosenwald examining people's obsession with smart phones. The article described how Ferrari played chess on his iPhone even while bathing his 4-year-old daughter. The comments were withering.

panamajack wrote: "I guess Ferrari should be thankful he found his feet wet rather than the body of his children floating in the tub because this stupid b@st@rd doesn't have the presence of mind to put that blasted gadget down so he can focus on his children! Of course, if his child drowns in the tub, Ferrari would be the first to blame his service provider for his stupidity. People can hide behind this garbage only so long."

At first, Ferrari " tried my best to resist weighing in," he said in an email afterward. But ultimately, he couldn't help himself.

"Good people," he wrote on the comment board, "as the father featured at the beginning of the article, please know that my oldest daughter, four years of age, is capable of entering and exiting the tub on her own, knows how to control the faucet, and delights in dousing me whether or not I have an iPhone in hand. If I had been sitting tub-side engrossed in a book, I doubt this anecdote would invite so much ire. Technophobia is as old as Guttenberg; the rants remain quaint.

"Also know that as a work-from-home father, I get much more quality time with both daughters than the typical 9-to-fiver, devoting much of the day to reading, outdoor play, and art. Please feel free to keep in touch regarding my daughters' physical health, mental development, and social skills. I'll offer the presumption that they are and will remain quite adequate."

What astonished Ferrari most "was the lack of civility in many posts -- the profanity, suggested violence, etc.," he said. But, unlike Sutherland, the experience hasn't scared him off, should a reporter come knocking again: "I certainly wouldn't have a problem being in another article," Ferrari said. The positive comments he got from friends and family "overwhelmed the cranks, crackpots, and curmudgeons," he said.

The issue certainly isn't new. In 2007, then-Post ombudsman Deborah Howell dedicated a column to the debate over comments, saying they “can be raw, racist, sexist and revolting.” She urged The Post to monitor them “much more vigorously.”

The Post uses automated filters to screen out some offensive language from comment boards; in addition, reporters and producers check the comments and take down posts that they find to be unacceptably abusive or tasteless. Readers can also flag offensive content for Post producers to look at for possible removal. But in general, the debate and discussion on the comment boards remains freewheeling, to say the least.

I’m not here to say whether the comment board is a good thing or a bad thing, or what The Post should do about them. That’s the ombudsman’s domain. But like any reporter, I try to protect my sources from any outfall that might result from agreeing to go on the record, even though that’s not always possible. These days, opening up to a reporter sometimes means getting beat up on the web site's comment boards. Will sources become more reluctant to talk to reporters because they fear what the posters will say about them?

I wrote Sutherland another email asking him about the comments and how they affected him. Did he think we should get rid of them, or better police them?

I didn’t hear back.

What's your view on comments on blogs and news articles? Are the comment boards a cesspool that needs to be shut down, a valuable reflection of readers' perspectives, or a work-in-progress--an early stab at finding the right forum for interaction between readers and reporters? Tell us about your experiences with comment boards...on ours, below.

By Christian Davenport  | March 4, 2010; 9:47 AM ET
Categories:  The Blowback, The inside story  
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Comments

The comments area of the Wash Post is an embarrassment to the reputation of the paper and the family that owns it.

Read the comments in the NY Times and compare. There's no comparison because of the moderating done by the times, and lacking at the post.

Comments may not fit any of the objectionable categories mentioned above, but you need to also weed out the puerile, the lies, the juvenile, the totally off topic, the amateur blogger, and the political hacks muddying the waters.

Moderate the comments please. Raise the standard of the conversation.

Posted by: JkR- | March 4, 2010 11:06 AM | Report abuse

I wonder if we should require people to use their real names, rather than sound off anonymously. Would that raise the level of discussion? I, too, have been shocked at how angry, nasty and personal some of the online attacks can be. We can't have the kinds of - hopefully - broad and enlightening conversations that journalism is all about eliciting if everybody's yelling, screaming and calling names.

Posted by: BrigidSchulte | March 4, 2010 11:26 AM | Report abuse

The Post should follow the lead of the NY Times and allow readers to rank comments so it's easier to see the best ones!

Posted by: subwayguy | March 4, 2010 11:27 AM | Report abuse

You cannot have it both ways: The first amendment offers freedom of speech. So you ask for comments, then decide what is appropriate? Just can't see a newspaper censuring anything.....Pot/kettle debate.

Posted by: msmarples | March 4, 2010 11:33 AM | Report abuse

Good point, subwaydude, if we have to live with the sewage, filtering in some fashion sure helps.

Posted by: JkR- | March 4, 2010 11:34 AM | Report abuse

I agree with JkR- I like to read the comments because some readers have great insights to add to the article. However, it is a pain to wade through 100 worthless comments to get to the one comment that is noteworthy.

Posted by: midanae | March 4, 2010 11:35 AM | Report abuse

I agree that the comments on this site and other news sites are pretty awful. However, people say the exact same terrible stuff about the subjects of news articles when they are talking to their friends and families on line or in person. So, anyone who decides to talk to the media on the record is already risking being bad-mouthed all over town. I guess the issue is that when there were no comments, the subjects of the articles just never realized how bad they make themselves look. They somehow thought that everyone who read the article was impressed with them?

Posted by: maryjuliabailey | March 4, 2010 11:59 AM | Report abuse

I've read some really nasty, rude, vituperative, immature, racist, sexist and you-name-it-ist comments on nytimes.com. There's no monopoly on mean comments at washingtonpost.com, I'm sorry to say.
Robert MacMillan

Posted by: easymac | March 4, 2010 12:32 PM | Report abuse

Why this lengthy defense of Sutherland. It is a sleazy operation masquerading as a legitimate business. The negative reaction to people making money off others misery is to be expected and, as you point out, others in this line of "business" don't want to talk to you because they know the public reaction will be revulsion. Ditto the reaction towards Ferrari's obsession with his smart phone.
I understand how this makes reporting difficult but if you don't like to hear the public reaction, might I suggest a career in insurance underwriting?

Posted by: edwardallen54 | March 4, 2010 12:38 PM | Report abuse

I actually wrote a blog post specifically about the nastiness of Washington Post commenters a few weeks ago.

http://www.socialmediatoday.com/SMC/177749

In case you don't allow links, what I said in that blog post was that when I used to be a guest blogger for On Balance the commenters were very nasty and had formed what was basically a little community where they gathered daily to bash whoever was posting that day. I personally attribute it to the fact that I think there are a lot of rude people in DC and when they have the opportunity to spew nastiness anonymously they relish it.

I don't think it's on the Post to moderate comments--clearly lots of people read the online version just to watch the antics within the comments. Nasty comments draw traffic--sad as it is, it's true.

Posted by: maggie7 | March 4, 2010 12:47 PM | Report abuse

Perhaps it is because I have trawled the length and breadth of internet communities, but I actually find the comments on Washington Post to be well in line with what I expect.

Then again, I've actually seen 4chan. It's a fascinating sociological experiment writ large.

Posted by: lextenou | March 4, 2010 1:21 PM | Report abuse

msmarples

Your right to free speech does not apply on someone elses message board. Its the property of the WP not the public. Kind of like smoking, its your right, but not everywhere. But hey folks, if you want to get rid of the rude, racist, sexist vile vulgar comments simply required people to associate their usernames with their real identity. That way we can actually find out who the people are who say these things. I can tell you people watch what they say when they think others know who they are or can find out who they are easily. The poster who make racist comments make them because the internet blog allows them to be anonymous to other readers. You think they would make them if we could find out who they are? They would be too embarrassed.

Posted by: ged0386 | March 4, 2010 1:35 PM | Report abuse

People make worse comments on message boards like these than they would make on facebook. Because unlike here people know who they are on facebook in many cases so they are particular about the image they project. Here is like making a prank phone call, outside of the WP no one is able to identify you based on your true identity.

Posted by: ged0386 | March 4, 2010 1:43 PM | Report abuse

I think we all agree that anonymity enables the torrent of nastiness, but I must confess that I have been surprised by the proportion of commenters who take advantage of that opportunity to be as mean as possible all the time. In no other endeavor in my life -- including junior high school -- have I seen so many people make the effort to express sheer hatred over and over and over. If The Post message boards are The Post readers, I'm glad I'm not meeting them in person.

Posted by: justkiddingdc | March 4, 2010 2:33 PM | Report abuse

If you are going to have a comments section in your newspaper, you have an ethical responsibility to moderate those comments to remove racist, sexist, abusive, cruel comments directed at other people. The Washington Post fails utterly at its ethical responsibility in this area (and in others, but this is the one under discussion, so hey). I wouldn't be interviewed for the Post either.

Posted by: Hembo | March 4, 2010 3:28 PM | Report abuse

Thank the good lord this isn't my WHOLE job, but part of my work responsibilities include monitoring the same kind of message boards. Nothing will make you feel more contempt for your fellow man.

But the problem msmarples and other free speech experts out there make is this: You can say whatever hateful things you want on the street (provided you have the guts and wouldn't mind getting your nose broken), but not on our site.

Being invited to a party is not a license to smear excrement all over the walls.

Just to be clear I do not work for the Washington Post.

Posted by: filhelsel | March 4, 2010 3:34 PM | Report abuse

Ms. Marples, you have a common misconception about the First Amendment. It protects individuals from government interference in free speech. It does not mean you can say whatever you want in a privately owned forum. The Washington Post has the right to restrict what appears on its comment pages just as Imus' employer had the right to fire him for what he said about the Rutgers women's basketball players. I agree with those posters who say the Post comment sections are like a sewer, full of racist, ignorant postings.

Posted by: usemark1 | March 4, 2010 4:14 PM | Report abuse

As a reader, I have to say that I'm pretty quick to navigate away from sites that don't allow commenting. The beauty of the internet is that it isn't a one-to-many communication channel, and if I want to be talked at, I can turn on the TV.

That being said, it sounds like a big part of the issue is the lack of consistency and strategy. I'm biased, because I work in online community--but really, reporters and producers are probably not the best to handle the job, and automated filters only handle so much. Having a dedicated community team to refine guidelines, review comments, and be active would probably go along way towards encouraging civility.

Posted by: sgwhites | March 4, 2010 6:23 PM | Report abuse

The comments on washingtonpost.com are the absolute worst feature of this whole site. I cannot stand reading them (I sometime have to for work). The amount of hatred, lack of facts and hyperbole is astonishing. The Post really can't let this be the Wild Wild West. You wouldn't publish 99.9 percent of the comments online as an official Letter to the Editor, now would you? No.

It's pretty amazing how 95 percent of the news articles have ties to President Obama's "socialist" agenda or whatever; pretty astonishing.

The failure of the Post to moderate comments reflects poorly on the publication. Your mantra, I suppose, is let's be social and free and allow almost whatever to be posted. But where's your journalistic responsibility to deal in facts, not crap that's often posted?

If I could wish for one thing for wp.com, it would be for true moderated online comments like the New York Times.

Posted by: vancouver1999 | March 4, 2010 11:53 PM | Report abuse

I understand the need for a comments section. In this day and age, interaction with the reader is necessary. However, in the same way that not every letter to the editor is published, I do not believe that every comment should be published either. There is a difference between facilitating a discussion between opposing points of view and allowing useless, mean, petty diatribes. I am sure the ugly comments are just a reflection of society at large. Consider what passes for political debate these days. However, I believe the Post needs to be more vigorous in setting a standard for allowable comments and enforcing it.

Posted by: penny1265 | March 5, 2010 9:40 AM | Report abuse

Outstanding article on how to handle moderation here:
http://www.asaecenter.org/PublicationsResources/ANowDetail.cfm?ItemNumber=47920

And this passage sums up the problems here:
Scalzi: That's why I find that some of the worst places for comments tend to be old-line media sites. In my opinion, the old-line media is really still stuck on the idea that it's asymmetrical and that when people respond, it's in the old "letters to the editor" sense. For a long time, they didn't get and they still don't get that instantaneous communication, if left unchecked or unmoderated, will quickly go down to a lowest common denominator of people yelling at each other. If you go to a newspaper site and look at the comments on any kind of article there, it's usually toxic spew followed by toxic spew.

The other thing that's there, and why Boing Boing was very smart to hire Teresa, is that the moderators are not doing a good job of actually moderating. They're going through occasionally and taking out the most toxic of comments, the ones that have the bad language and stuff like that, and not doing the things that moderators need to do with communities, which is set tone. It's not just about bad words; it's about how people are responding to each other.

Posted by: Hemisphire | March 5, 2010 11:38 AM | Report abuse

One of the most important functions of the news media is to be a gatekeeper - to judge the validity and truthfulness of sources and information. Online comments remove the barrier that has stood for a very long time between someone who wants to be heard and a mass audience.

Posted by: rquerry1 | March 8, 2010 7:11 PM | Report abuse

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