Public Editor

August 12, 2013

To enable comments or not?

Editors give a lot of thought to the question of whether individual stories should allow comments or not. It’s not always an easy choice, as the story about a rodeo clown at the Missouri State Fair who staged a gag wearing a rubber Obama mask demonstrates.

Lots of people have been talking about a rodeo clown at the Missouri State Fair who staged a gag wearing a rubber Obama mask over the weekend.

Some, like the editorial board’s Barb Shelly, have said it was

distasteful and embarrassing for the state.

Others, like columnist Mary Sanchez, thinks

people are making too big a deal out of it.

But one thing most people I’ve spoken to about it agree on is something that Sanchez addresses directly in her column: The online comments on the various news stories and opinion pieces about the incident have been out-of-control nasty.

I’m sorry to report that readers and Web editors have flagged many, many incidents of racism in the comments. The Disqus commenting system that uses (like thousands of other sites) doesn’t allow many common vulgarities. But people often find ways around those filters with “creative” misspelling or other tricks.

And as I’ve written many times, the No. 1 complaint by far I’ve heard about over the years has been the behavior of the usually-pseudonymous commenters. Anyone who spends any time in the comments on the site knows that a tiny handful of users is responsible for the vast majority of comments on stories there.

But when a story goes viral such as this one, gets a huge influx of new users from around the country. And many of those people create accounts specifically to stir things up.

One thing is clear: Users should not have to see idiotic, racist garbage on the comments, any more than they should expect to see them in the Letters column in the Opinion section. They've been turned off on the main stories, but were up for most of the day they were posted.

However, there’s a journalistic problem there. I just got off the phone with Miriam Pepper, The Star’s vice president for the Opinion page, who voiced the very reasonable concern that The Star’s pundits get their say — but disabling comments because of a few bad actors means that the reasonable voices of dissent don’t have that immediate public forum, other than to submit a letter to the editor.

No, it’s hardly a problem unique to The Star. I don’t see an easy answer. All I know is that committed trolls always seem to find a way to air their nastiness, driving off people who want to have a serious, substantive discussion.

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