Ask the editor: When conversations about our articles are less than civil

Mention the article commenting section of a news website to any reporter or editor, and most of them will roll their eyes.

Mention the article commenting section of a news website to any reporter or editor, and most of them will roll their eyes. It’s not that they don’t want to hear from readers, but too often the discussions at the end of stories spiral into personal attacks, rants, and sometimes worse.

It turns out that readers have their own complaints about the sections, too.

“Why do I keep getting censored?” one reader of The Examiner’s website wrote me in an email after reading Sunday’s column in which I asked for feedback. He included his last two comments that were flagged on our site — and therefore automatically hidden — and awaiting moderation by us. The comments were opinionated, but mostly innocuous. I was curious about what happened.

He, like another reader, could not understand why their comments were flagged. One of them accused our news organization of having an agenda — in this case, of deleting comments that were negative toward the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency.

I confess that I had to chuckle about how ludicrous that accusation was, given how aggressively we’ve covered the problems at the SFMTA.

But others in the comments section also convey various flavors of this conspiracy theory that we are censoring comments that we disagree with. They use these to fill in the hole left by our failure to provide an explanation of what is really happening.

Readers also asked me to articulate our commenting policy for our three publications: The Examiner, SF Weekly and SF Evergreen.

Here’s what I found.

We aim to delete spam, as well as toxic, racist, anti-Semitic and otherwise hateful, attacking comments. Our commenting settings automatically flag comments that include links to other websites to reduce spam, and we have a set of particularly offensive words that are automatically flagged. They are hateful descriptors and do not include swear words that are more prevalent in today’s lexicon than they used to be — and are used regularly by our writers in SF Weekly, for example. Personal attacks are removed when we see them.

But at least 90 percent of the flags on The Examiner site, including the ones the readers wrote to me about, are being done by other commenters.

This peer policing is intended to keep things civil. However, I found that in most cases, commenters are routinely flagging the comments of the people they disagree with as they debate them. Logged in as the moderator, I can see what they cannot. I sat back on Tuesday afternoon and watched it happen in real time. Back and forth, back and forth, as commenters debated who is to blame for bicycle fatalities, they were flagging each other’s comments behind the scenes.

The topic of bicyclist deaths is a crucial one for The City, and rose to the surface again following the tragic death of 30-year-old Tess Rothstein last week. With few exceptions, I restored the dozens of comments in this debate. I also left a note on the site, asking people to stop essentially censoring each other if the only reason is that they disagree with the other person.

The next day, many of the same commenters had moved on to a more recent story about a proposal to locate a navigation center on the Embarcadero, but there were fewer people flagging each other this time.

This lack of decorum is nothing new, of course. And, thankfully, it represents a minority of our readers and commenters. A few years ago, while working for another publication, I wrote a column calling for stricter gun-control laws, explaining how two of my close friends were shot to death when I was in my 20s. Hateful emails followed.

Still, what struck me as I sat there watching this unfold on our site was not only how childishly these debaters were behaving, but how unproductive the discussion was. It was like watching Congress in action. There were no constructive solutions that came from the debate, and no one was really hearing anyone else.

Meanwhile, yes, we do a poor job of articulating our commenting policy, even though yes, we do have standards. The Examiner does not have a written policy available to readers, and while I found one for SF Weekly, it is difficult to find.

And, while we do delete comments that we see as particularly egregious, we less often go in and unlock the comments that other commenters have flagged. I spent a couple hours doing it this week, and indeed at the rate that readers flag each other, it would require a nearly full-time moderator, which we do not have the staff for. And it can feel like a useless task, since the vast majority of the comments should not have been flagged in the first place.

That’s one reason my editors, like many I know in the business, are often frustrated by the commenting section. “Have you ever see a comment thread that doesn’t devolve into insults and worse? I haven’t,” one friend wrote me, explaining why his news organization eliminated article comments altogether.

Still, we can do a better job on our end, and I am not ready to nix our comments section. Yet. (We will be launching a new Examiner website soon, and it will include a commenting platform.) Commenters often make excellent, if sometimes unpopular, points. The most toxic comments are thankfully, in the minority. Still, there are way too many rude and negative comments, as if the bad behavioral example the U.S. president has set is wearing off on The City. I think commenters can do better.

I want to know from you how we can have more real conversations that bring real solutions. Is the commenting section counter-productive to that? What forums — in person and virtual — could help bring more constructive, civil, and solution-based discussions? Please bring on the ideas.

Thanks to all of you who have reached out since my first column. Please email me at askeditor@sfmediaco.com with your feedback and questions about how we do our jobs and how we can do it better. Put “ask the editor” in the subject column, and note which publication you are referring to.

Deborah Petersen is the editor- in-chief of San Francisco Media Company which publishes The Examiner, SF Weekly and SF Evergreen.

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