Readers' Representative Journal

A conversation on newsroom ethics and standards

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The online conversation

May 7, 2008 |  2:32 pm

Reporter Stuart Pfeifer forwarded an inquiry from reader William Franckē of the Fairfax District, who'd been moved enough by an April 8 story that he wanted to post a comment. But there was no place to do so. His note to Pfeifer:

"Stuart, just read your very disheartening story about the O.C. Sheriff's Department and the death of inmate John Derek Chamberlain. I cannot understand why these people (sheriffs!!!) are not being charged. Who at The Times decides whether or not to allow readers to 'discuss' stories?  It seems pretty hit and miss as to which story we will be allowed to respond to and I'm sure a lot of people have something to say about this story."

Reader S.J. Sand in West Hills sent a similar sentiment: "Please put a 'comment' box under ALL articles, as most newspapers, i.e. the Washington Post, are doing.  Don't make us go searching. If you value readers' comments, then you should make it easy for us to comment."

Letters to the editor used to be the primary way a reader could publicly voice an opinion (that, for instance, is how reader Karl Strandberg commented on the same issue that provoked Franckē). But 10 or 12 letters are published in print each day, leaving unpublished the comments from hundreds more who have sent letters). Now, though, the online world lets people be both reader and writer, by talking back, and talking to each other, and having their say again, often on discussion boards.

Some articles that have high reader interest do include space at the end for readers to post their comments -- for example, the recent coverage of the shark attack off Solana Beach and almost any coverage of illegal immigration. But not all stories have those message boards.

The inconsistency, says Executive Editor Meredith Artley, is a matter of quality control. (A few ombudsmen at other newspapers have written about this; see the Salt Lake Tribune, "Rude Web site bullies are breaking rules"; Florida Times-Union, "Cleaning up cyber comments"; Orlando Sentinel, "Lack of civility in message boards reflects not just on Web site but on newspaper, too.")

Artley says they want to have editors review comments before they're posted. "We do this to keep our discussions and debates healthy and spam-free. That takes a little more time than using an automated system on every article, but we feel that old-fashioned reading and approving fosters the best discussions. This also means that we have to be selective. We have been expanding the use of message boards on the site, and will continue to do so –- it's important that visitors to feel they can have an intelligent discussion on any number of issues."

Artley encourages readers like Franckē and Sand to send a note to the reporters (e-mail addresses usually are at the end of each piece) suggesting that a discussion board be started. Reporters in turn are encouraged to alert the web deputies -- those editors assigned to each desk -- when a story seems to spur readers to write.

The same is true of the editorials, and the online Opinion pages. Editorial Page Editor Jim Newton says they operate under the mandate to keep things civil, so they, too, monitor the comments, which means they pick and choose which one or two editorials a week might draw an unusually large response. Newton gives as recent examples the May 1 editorial on Barack Obama and the Rev. Jeremiah Wright; typically boards have been attached to editorials on immigration, the LAPD and the mayor. Newton, too, says that he hopes to be able to post more discussion boards at some point.

Nick Goldberg, who oversees the Op-ed and Sunday Opinion pages, says much the same: Message boards are on regular weekly columns and on specific stories that he thinks will be of particular interest, but not all, because he wants each moderated. Beyond message boards, though, Goldberg notes that readers can go to Blowback, the daily online feature in which people respond to articles and opinion pieces that have been in the paper. (A link to the feature is on the homepage.) The Blowbacks are extended letters to the editor, and often are as long as the original articles to which they're responding -- and of course each offers a message board.

Artley points to other places at that are wide open to online conversations: "Message boards are just one way. There are comments on blogs, as well as live chats; we also get a lot of unique content from our readers with the very popular Your Scene section of the site, where photos and videos can be uploaded. And in the newly launched Guide section, users review places and events as well. Our short- and long-term plans include more reader feedback and input at just about every level."