Yesterday, when the Inquirer broke the story that four people accused retired Daily News sports columnist Bill Conlin of abusing them as children, Philly.com took what has become, for us, a routine step for a story of this nature:
We turned off readers’ ability to comment on those articles.
By default, commenting is allowed on staff-written stories and columns, but there are some types of content where we do not allow commenting, including obituaries (where readers often have the option of signing a moderated online guestbook) and wire stories. But we often – not always, but often – turn off commenting on stories involving crimes, especially molestation or sex crimes.
Why do we do this? Part of the reason is that these stories are particularly sensitive. Comments can impact serious legal proceedings for the victims and the defendants. The other part of the reason is painful: the comments on those stories can be particularly nasty, blaming the victim or reverting to racist or sexist stereotypes. They don’t add to the conversation and they hurt the victims.
So, in those cases, we turn commenting off. We did this on the first Jerry Sandusky stories; we did this on Kensington Strangler stories; we do this on far less attention-grabbing stories. Not always, but often.
I should add: Personally, I am in favor of commenting on news stories online. For a long time, the news conversation was one-sided, and the best readers who wanted to respond to a story could hope for is to perhaps get one letter to the editor published from the many received. We published a lot, and readers published almost nothing.
In a lot of cases, those comments have been positive additions to our coverage. I will never forget when our commenters revealed that a local school board was posting edited video transcripts of its school board meetings. The comments led to coverage, and the school board quickly reversed its position and posted the full video.
However, I am heartbroken by how some have chosen to use this platform. So, for now, when we have to, we use the crude tool of turning comments off.
But this story is also unusual because it involves a former employee. Readers have said that they want to be able to talk about it, and we want to ensure we are as transparent as possible regarding this story.
We have heard our readers, and we have added commenting to the stories (join in here).
This commenting is highly moderated. We’re devoting special staffing to it, and we’ll keep it up as this story plays out.
And in the long term, we are devoted to finding a better solution to commenting. Right now, we are testing a new way to comment requiring Facebook logins (you can see a test of that on staff-produced articles in our Entertainment section now; here’s an example.)
We’re hoping that requiring the use of real names will encourage better commenting behavior and improve the tone of our comments; assuming this test is successful – and so far, it’s encouraging – we will roll this out to other sections of our site.
In the meantime, thank you for reading. Feel free to leave us a comment below on these changes, or email me directly here.