Diversity committee: stop Register comments *

Word out of Orange County is that newsroom staffers at the Register have signed a letter protesting the posting of anonymous comments on the paper's website that libel, level racial insults and slime reporters. It's partly a response to the tasteless gibes directed at an obese woman who gave birth and partly a backlash against anonymous ethnic slurs. Now the paper's diversity committee has called on the editor to suspend the comment boards, saying the risk of harm to the Register and its journalists "outweighs the good" of unrestrained online banter: "The committee believes that we risk our relationships with sources, and the goodwill and trust that we have sought to create with our print and online readers." Exchange of memos after the jump:

To Ken Brusic and the Steering Committee
March 12, 2007 From the Diversity Committee The online user last week identified himself as "Glad I'm not a bean(er)." The comment was "Do you know what ?The Virgin of Gaudelupe? is?... A 10 year old mexican girl who can still out-run her brothers and uncles." The story was about Mission Viejo's efforts to ensure that city staff and employees of contractors can work legally in the United States.

The issue of such comments, which number in the hundreds at OCRegister.com, have come up twice before the Diversity Committee since late February.

The Committee takes the position that the comments areas of the Web site have great potential for helping FOCI to achieve its goals of building community and becoming more interactive with readers, as well as to serve as a relevant, authoritative source of information.

In their current state, however, the comment boards have several flaws, in large part due to their having been overtaken by a relative handful of users who have riddled the site with statements that are bigoted, hateful, foul and irrelevant.

The Committee believes that in their current state, the comment boards pose a risk of harm to FOCI and to its journalists that outweighs the good. The committee believes that we risk our relationships with sources, and the goodwill and trust that we have sought to create with our print and online readers. The Committee recommends that FOCI suspend the boards for a short period to develop solutions to these problems.

After reviewing the experiences of more than a dozen other news organizations, we urge the Steering Committee to consider such measures as these:

-Use of an online moderator who could help steer the conversation with thoughtful questions, and who would have the authority to remove comments that are inappropriate.
-Continual policing by a moderator of discussion areas for inappropriate language.
-Separation of discussion areas from content areas.
-Use of software that can block repeat abusers.
-A registration process with clear terms of use.
-A disclaimer that indicates the views are those of the users.

The Diversity Committee hopes that the research done has been useful, and is willing to do more.

FOCI has standards for letters to the editor. When it solicits photos of pets or scenery, it would not allow pornographic images. It wouldn't tolerate graffiti on the exterior of its buildings. Its reporters and editors work through content issues daily, deciding what stories to cover, what questions to ask, what images to display.

Standards also need to be developed and enforced when it comes to online content and comment, both our own and that which is submitted by our readers. The Committee looks forward to discussion boards that promote vigorous debate and a deeper level of understanding about issues facing our communities. We want to see discussion boards that help people with divergent views to share them and to learn from each other.

We should not passively allow a handful of online vandals to derail our goals.

The Diversity Committee believes there is an opportunity here for FOCI, through the use of its resources, its talent and its judgment, to provide responsible leadership in helping the community make the most of this opportunity.

Ron Gonzales (For the Diversity Committee)

Brusic is executive editor of the Register and senior vice president for content. Freedom Orange County Information is the paper's parent.
The response:

Re: Diversity recommendation

Ron,

I'm appalled by what I see on some of the comments as well. The tool, as you know, is not controlled by Orange County. It was built by Freedom's IT organization without much conversation with users. That said, like you, I agree that allowing readers to express their opinions, challenge our reporting and debate with one another is exactly what we want. So we agree on the goal; we just need to determine the right way to get there.

I've had some conversations with our publisher, the company's executive team and IT about the comments section. The consensus is that our first step is to specify the rules of the road and ask the community to police itself. Some of that is already going on. Several modifications to the tool will be made to make that happen. We'll then continue to monitor and see it any additional steps are necessary.

My understanding is that we'll be able to make the first wave of modifications this week. In the meantime, I would urge you, the diversity committee members and anyone else on our staff to make liberal use of the "Report Abuse" button to get rid of the obscene or hateful comments. I certainly have done my best to delete the worst offenders. The guidelines below are the ones we've agreed upon.

And thanks to the committee for taking the time to consider and offer suggestions on this issue.

-- Ken

Guidelines
* No flaming. Do not be deliberately hostile and insulting.
* No comments that are obscene, vulgar, lewd, sexually-oriented,
threatening, libelous or illegal.
* No racial slurs or insults
* "Report abuse" deletes comments that are objects of complaints.

* FBLA follows: Brusic's email in response to the newsroom petition.


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