Readers' Representative Journal

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Comments about online comments

August 12, 2010 | 12:40 pm

The Times frequently hears from readers regarding online comments -- those on articles on or on Times blogs.

The dialogue between readers and the newspaper is still evolving, and the hope is that the conversation online will continue to improve. Recent changes to the commenting system are intended to help that along.

In late April, The Times adopted a system of unmoderated comments on articles. As the memo announcing the change explained, comments are “scrubbed against a word filter, which will block an extensive list of vulgarities.”  The memo warned, however, that the system was not foolproof and that inappropriate language was bound to slip by the filter. Users were encouraged to police the system by flagging offensive comments with the “Report Abuse” button. Two reports of abuse will automatically remove a comment and flag it for review by an editor.

The new system is designed to provide a better forum for debate, said Martin Beck, reader engagement editor.  “By allowing real-time discussion, we are aiming to enable actual conversations about our journalism,” Beck said. “And if it gets out of hand, we are depending on our readers to help identify wrongdoers.”

Blogs were excluded from this system; all blog comments are still moderated by journalists in the newsroom.

Some readers are confused by the different systems. Others have technical issues with trying to post. Yet others want to report an inappropriate comment but can’t figure out how to.

Here are answers to some recent reader e-mails regarding comments:

You have a pretty abusive rant attached as a comment to the article regarding testimony on safety and malfunctions aboard the Deepwater Horizon. A line in your Comments section suggests reporting abusive comments, but a link to do so is not readily apparent.

To reach the screen with the “Report Abuse” button, you must first click “View Comments” in the gray Comments header that appears below each article. That brings up a full screen of comments, each of which has a “Report Abuse” button next to it.

This step is more evident on a post that has a lot of comments. The article page displays only the three most recent comments, so if the Comments header shows that there are actually 17, a reader is more  likely to click “View Comments” to see the rest of them.

However, if there are only one or two comments, it is less intuitive to click “View Comments,” because you’re already looking at them. Editors say they will make this step clearer in the Discussion FAQs.

From a reader who forwarded an offensive comment posted to an editorial:

What is with you guys at the L.A. Times?  Do you have no ethical or editorial standards? Do you not even read these comments before you publish them?

As was announced in April, comments go live without being reviewed so long as they make it through the profanity filter. In this specific case, the system worked as it was intended: Users reported the comment as abusive and it was automatically removed. An editor concurred, and the comment was permanently unpublished.

I attempted to post a comment on a Health article three times.  That comment was never posted. Could you please explain, so if it is a mistake I made I can avoid it in the future?

This reader included the comment he’d tried to post, and there was no offending language or any other apparent reason it should not have posted.

However, it did include funny characters in place of quote marks and dashes, which was a signal that there might be some underlying coding that was being read as text. Each comment is limited to 1,400 characters, and hidden coding is counted against that character limit. This can happen when a comment is copied and pasted from another program, such as Microsoft Word.

There are two tips for preventing this: If you compose your comment in another program, convert it to plain text before you copy it. Second, after you paste the comment into the comment window, click “preview” to make sure it is being read properly. If you see gibberish such as this …

<!-- /* Font Definitions */ @font-face {font-family:"Cambria Math"; panose-1:2 4 5 3 5 4 6 3 2 4; mso-font-charset:0; mso-generic-font-family:roman; mso-font-pitch:variable; mso-font-signature:-1610611985 1107304683 0 0 159 0;} @font-face {font-family:Calibri; panose-1:2 15 5 2 2 2 4 3 2 4; mso-font-charset:0; mso-generic-font-family:swiss; mso-font-pitch:variable; mso-font-signature:-1610611985 1073750139 0 0 159 0;}

… your comment is not likely to post.

From a reader pointing out an error in a blog post:

My beef is not with the sloppiness that resulted in an inaccurate headline and lead paragraph but the fact that two readers posted comments calling this to your attention, and eight hours later, as I write this, it still has not been corrected.

This was regarding an item on the L.A. Now blog -- which is relevant for two reasons. First, it was a blog, and so the comments pointing out the error would have been approved by someone in the newsroom. Second, it was L.A. Now, which is The Times’ busiest blog and one that draws hundreds of user comments per day. The second reason is intended as an explanation, but it isn’t an excuse. Someone should have recognized that the comments were pointing out an obvious error.

(This reader followed up by asking, what is a better way to report errors? A reader also can send an e-mail -- to the writer of the blog post or article, or the Readers’ Representative’s office. Also, clicking on the “Corrections” tab in the navigation bar will bring up a link to a form where a correction request can be submitted.

I've made about half a dozen comments over the past few months to blog postings, and none of them get posted. Most of them are smart-aleck, but not offensive. I'm wondering, am I on a blacklist?

Readers who believe their comments aren’t being posted sometimes fear they’ve been blacklisted. There is no blacklist. However, users who repeatedly violate the terms of service can be banned.

Because blog comments are moderated, there can be a lag time in getting them posted. If a reader comments in the middle of the night, the blog’s editor may not see it until morning. Meantime, that reader may believe the comment has been rejected or censored.

The editor who oversees The Times’ 40 blogs, Tony Pierce, said that even if a user does not consider his comment to be offensive, reporters and editors may disagree. He suggested, “Write a completely non-smart-alecky comment and see if it gets published -- I bet it does.”

-- Deirdre Edgar


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