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The Rights Stuff Forum: Backlash

Backlash Online

Terry Sauer, Assistant Managing Editor/Digital, Star Tribune

Each month more than 15,000 comments are posted by Star Tribune readers, reacting to stories on the newspaper's web site at Star Tribune.com. Because a percentage of those comments had been highly offensive, the newspaper had found it necessary to prohibit posting on certain categories of stories — including racially sensitive stories, and stories related to the Muslim and gay communities. Recently the newspaper re-examined it policies in an effort to encourage dialog on important topics, while avoiding content is that vulgar, hate-filled or otherwise inappropriate. Star Tribune Assistant Managing Editor/Digital Terry Sauer talked about the newspaper's experience with online readers comments and its evolving policies in an interview.

Comments from Terry Sauer

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Question: You had mentioned that some new rules are in place with respect to the Star Tribune's online comments. Can you elaborate?

Terry Sauer: We have now hired moderators, so we are now moderating comments 24-7, seven days a week. Comments that pass through our filter — meaning ones that do not have vulgarity — go live on the site when you post them. But our goal is that within two to five minutes, each of those comments will be seen by a human. And that person will make a call on whether it should remain on the site, or come off.

What standards or rules determine whether or not a reader's comment is appropriate, and can remain?

We look at profanity or vulgarity — people are creative when it comes to getting them through the filter. But one of the things that we look at even more so — because the filter does catch much of the vulgarity — is personal attacks. These are attacks generally against others who are commenting, or often against somebody in the story, or attacks against the reporter. We do realize a reporter perhaps has a thicker skin than people in the story, but we still need to not allow attacks on reporters.

What are the Star Tribune's policies with respect to comments that might be considered bias or hate speech?

We have eight topics that we don't allow comments on — crime, Muslims, fatalities and suicides, gays, distressed local companies, racially sensitive stories, local homes stories, and CJ — although we are going to cut that group down now, since we have the moderators.

What prompted the Star Tribune to ban the comments on stories related to Muslims, and to stories about gays?

It's just a horrible discussion. The commenting often goes on until somebody says, "Did you see the comments on that story?" And you go and look, and for the past three hours there have been just a horrible series of hateful comments. There is a lot of hatred out there. We need to have a good dialogue, and not just this hatred spewing on any topic that Muslims are referred to.

What objectionable comments have been posted on fatalities?

You'd be surprised. It's basically Darwin's theory — "all these people should be killed because they're on the highway and they don't know how to drive" — things like that. There's just no good commenting that comes out of a fatality, really.

Now that the Star Tribune has hired moderators, will commenting be allowed on stories related to Muslims, and on stories related to gays?

That is the plan. We will phase it in on a story-by-story basis over the next month. But comments in these areas will be moderated first. They will not go immediately on the site, but hopefully within two to five minutes of a comment being made, it will either be pushed live because it is something that adds to the conversation, or it will be left off. There will be a note in the commenting area saying that due to the nature of this topic, we are moderating comments, and readers will know that it's a little different than the other commented topics.

How long has the Star Tribune been allowing readers to post comments online?

I would say two and one half years.

Question: Is the level of incivility increasing? Are people angrier this year than they were last year?

It goes in streaks. It's hard to make a comparison between this year, last year, and the year before. We do ban commenters, and as you do that, you hopefully continue to improve your pool of commenters because some of the trolls or the nastier commenters lose the ability to comment. Over time, you hope you are elevating the discussion that way. But we do have 15,000 unique commenters, and about 75,000 comments, each month. So it's pretty hard to stay on top of people who are just out to disrupt the conversation.

Why does your newspaper allow people to post anonymously? Wouldn't it be preferable if people had to put their name on their comments?

That's certainly a big issue, and we talk about that a lot. But I firmly believe that there is no way you can verify the real name. Even if we did require real names, how do you verify that it is Joe Smith, and not Joe Smith's neighbor, who is pretending to be Joe Smith? We can send people an e-mail confirmation, but that e-mail address has no name on it, so you really don't know whether you're getting a real name or not.

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