The fine art of moderating our readers' online posts
One of the most frequent questions that appears in the readers' editor postbag is: What do you do about nasty comments on online articles? It's not an easy question to answer, as it involves matters of law, taste and the image of the Belfast Telegraph in this community.
This is an area of journalism known as "online moderation" – and it is becoming increasingly important.
The problem is that readers can often – deliberately or often innocently – post comments that might be libellous, or tend towards hate crime or harassment. In the old days, a letters editor would spot a "green ink brigade" tirade at 50 paces, screw the letters up and chuck them in the bin. But pretty much everyone these days accepts that wide engagement is positive and that the ability to comment on online articles, photographs and videos is pretty much essential.
Yet, with comments on a newspaper's website often numbering into the thousands per day, how do you rein in the small number of cowboys?
The issue was the matter of a study recently by the UK Society of Editors, which produced a guide to online moderation aimed at understanding "potential threats in online comment and suggesting ways that moderators of media sites can address it".
The investigation, by Professor Peter Cole, emeritus professor of journalism at Sheffield University, aims to shine a light on good practice rather than draw up a list of prescriptive rules.
Now, studies are 10 a penny and some are frankly not worth the candle. But this one manages to pull together competing strands across many publishing models and make an important contribution to the debate between protecting freedom of expression and guarding vulnerable people from online "trolling".
For the record, the Belfast Telegraph operates a mixed system using the LiveFyre commenting interface. We do not moderate comments in advance, unlike one or two of the bigger national newspapers.
Rather, our first line of defence is a series of online filters to block abusive keywords – for example, swear words or hateful descriptions of minority groups.
Then we rely on a 'Report This', button which permits anyone who feels aggrieved to instantly communicate their feelings to the Belfast Telegraph digital staff. If the staff agree, the comment will not be permitted and will be permanently blocked. Repeat offenders can – and have been – banned from the website.
Further proof that the world has gone a bit bonkers, post-Leveson. This column and others have previously warned about draconian rules forcing police officers to shun all contact with the media unless authorised by their press office.
Now the contagion has spread to the military. New official guidelines appear to impose controls on Armed Forces members making contact with journalists, even in a social setting like bars. The rules, reported by Press Gazette, state that when a member of the Armed Forces has any contact with a journalist, they must immediately notify press officers.
The document also states: "These rules still apply if individuals encounter: journalists or other members of the news media in a social setting (whether work-related or not); third-party individuals with known links to the media, such as commentators, academics, representatives of industry, think-tanks or lobby groups, or former serving personnel with a media profile."
That phrase – "known links to the media" – is particularly chilling. A bit like "known links to the IRA/UVF" or something.
What do you do if you're unlucky enough to be a military person married to a journalist?
Keep an intimate contacts diary, I suppose, and turn it over to your commanding officer on a Monday morning. Then start reading up on privacy law.
And while you're at it, how about you reread a novel called Nineteen Eighty-Four by a bloke called George Orwell?