The Rights Stuff Forum: Backlash

Backlash Online

Mike Knaak, Assistant Managing Editor – St. Cloud Times

In these tough economic times, people are feeling threatened, scared and increasingly inclined to lash out — sometimes in comments posted on the web site of the St. Cloud Times, says Mike Knaak, St. Cloud Times Assistant Managing Editor. If comments are racist or otherwise patently offensive, they are removed from the site quickly, says Knaak. But the line between what is acceptable and what is not can be fuzzy, he explains. Knaak shared his thoughts on civility and what some call journalism's "comment conundrum" in an interview.

Comments from Mike Knaak

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Mike KnaakQuestion: When did the St. Cloud Times start permitting readers to comment on individual stories?

Mike Knaak: I think we started it in 1999.

How many comments does the St. Cloud Times get every day - and has the number been increasing?

It varies, but it's in the thousands a day. I would say at first it just went up like crazy, and it's still going up. And about two years ago we added some more features to the site so people can still comment on stories, but if you register, you can start your own blog. There are more opportunities to speak out, so that pushes the numbers up, too.

Do you require people to register to post comments?

They do have to register. They can use a screen name, but when they register they have to provide some demographic information and also a verifiable e-mail address.

There has been a lot of discussion about an increased lack of civility in our society, and some have observed that one place that this lack of civility occurs is in the reader comments that appear in newspapers such as yours. Do you find that lack of civility to be increasing in the comments posted by your readers?

It comes and goes. I guess my feeling is, these are tough times for folks. They feel threatened and challenged, and they are scared, and some people express that emotion in different ways — sometimes it's to lash out. I don't know if it's any better or any worse than it ever was, there are just new ways for people to express themselves. And some people are more articulate than others.

When people do lash out in the pages of the St. Cloud Times, what are the kinds of things they lash out about?

The concerns of society: crime. Immigration. Anything having to do with schools, especially if they are worried about if their kids are safe and being educated properly. Those are the things that people want to talk about. What we've seen in the last few months, with the change in power in Washington, is that the conservative comments we get are harsher than the liberal comments, right now. But it was probably the other way around a year ago, toward the end of the Republican reign. It seems that the people who are the outs are a little more stirred up. I'm not surprised at that.

Question: Much has been made of the fact that we have a black president, and some have alleged that there has been a resurgence of racism as a result. Have there been more racially-motivated comments from your readers since Obama was sworn in as president?

You can't tell someone's motivation. People will make rather rough comments about politicians — is the motivation because Obama is black, or because he is a Democrat? This whole birther thing — is that motivated by anger over a black man being elected president, or is it anger over a liberal being elected president? You don't know.

We do see racism on our site in terms of things like immigration and crime. If people want to engage in a discussion on the criminal justice system, or if they want to engage in a discussion on immigration, that's fine. But when it's out and out racist stuff, it's gone. We take it down. We don't want to encourage hate speech.

Where do you draw the line? What are your standards as far as what is acceptable and what isn't?

The line is fuzzy. We have a filter that takes out or tries to take out obscenities and offensive words, and we are not going to allow people to make specific, violent threats. For example, we had a fairly nasty sexual assault here a couple of weeks ago, and somebody said, let's take the guy out and shoot him. That comment is gone. We don't moderate the comments, but they are essentially reader moderated. And if you see something you find offensive, there is a little thing you click, and it drops the comment into a queue. I'll see it, or one of my colleagues will see it, and we'll act on it.

If somebody wants to say something like, "I really think we shouldn't have as many Somali immigrants as we have, we should not let them into the country" — that's one thing. But if somebody makes a general disparaging comment against a whole group of people or threatens them, that's something we frown on.

The Star Tribune has certain categories of stories on which they will not allow any comments, including stories about Muslims and gays, because too many abusive comments have been posted. Does your publication have "forbidden" or blocked categories?

No. A few years back, maybe eight or nine years ago, we blocked comments on high school sports of all things, because there was this trash talk that was not very useful. But we've since put it back, our thoughts on selectively turning off "story chat" is that, first of all, it's not very practical. If they really want to comment on a story, people will just post their comment on another story. And secondly, there are stories that get a lot of participation. And if five percent of those comments are offensive and we have to remove them, should we take that opportunity away from everybody else? It's a fairness issue, as well as a practical issue.

It happens on our site quite a bit that if somebody says something that's totally outrageous, somebody will come along and swat them down. And I'd rather see that sort of community control than us saying, you know, folks, you're not mature enough to handle this topic because of a few lunkheads who want to throw gas on a fire. We always try and stress to people that if things get out of hand, at the end of the day the well reasoned, articulate argument or opinion will force out the other ones. We don't have a stupidity filter — if somebody wants to say something that is just wrong, the way to deal with this is to let them say it, let the ideas stand on their own. That being said, we do have the rules we talked about before.

Do you ever find it necessary to ban a user because he or she has posted something completely inappropriate?

We'll do that. If someone is a repeat offender, I'll send them a little e-mail saying hey, you know, here's why your stuff is getting blocked — keep it up and you're gone. If it's something really, really out of line, I'll take them off without any warning.

What's the kind of comment that would get someone banned at the St. Cloud Times?

One thing would be a specific, violent threat. Or use of the site for essentially just being a jerk — "I want to see how many dirty words I can put on the Internet." And we don't allow people to put up anything that's essentially a promotion for their business. That's not what story chat is about.

How often do you need to block someone?

Maybe once a week.

How many comments do you get that you need to remove?

It comes and goes with the news, but on a given day, I'll knocked down five to ten maybe.

In the ten years you've been doing this, what have the comments posted by readers told you about St. Cloud, that you might not have known if your paper wasn't providing this service?

I don't think you want to say, because of the comments we see, this is what our community thinks. But on the other hand, these are opinions that you hear — on the street, in the bar, in the cafĂ©, and in some cases when you gather with your relatives. There are some angry folks out there. We don't all agree, we don't have all the same ideas. And I think this, in a nonscientific way, gives people a chance to see the breath of ideas in a community, good or bad.

What I like about our site is we have an interesting group of people. Some of them post with their real names, some use screen names. But we've got school board members, the former mayor, a former school superintendent, and some of them do blogs — they add a lot to the discussion in St. Cloud about what's going on, a lot of perspective. And I think the ability to interact with each other and to provide a perspective to the community more than outweighs the trolls who basically are immature and want to just see what kind of trouble they can cause.

It's clear that our society has to learn how to behave in a new world, and what's acceptable. I think we have to educate people in a number of ways that free speech has with it some responsibilities, and one of them is articulate, logical arguments. But I think the way to drive out the people who just want to be obnoxious and offensive is to have more of the good stuff, rather than just trying to shut everybody down. I think good speech drives out bad speech.

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