Editors react when posts don’t pass libel sniff test

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By Milissa Tuley
HSPA staff

A news alert from the local paper pops up on a smartphone.

The phone’s owner clicks the link to the newspaper’s website and reads the story. It’s a popular one, with 18 reader comments already.

The phone-holding reader scoffs at two of the comments and immediately fires back an outraged response complete with a borderline libelous statement.

Whether the comment will be deleted, edited or ignored depends on the paper, but the task is a responsibility editorial boards should take seriously, according to Peter Scheer, a lawyer and journalist who’s the executive director of the First Amendment Co­­alition. The San Rafael, Calif.-based group works nationally to advance free speech, open government and civic participation. 

In a 2010 column on the group’s website, FirstAmendmentCoalition.org, Scheer urges newspapers not to let reader comments sections become overly friendly to what he calls the bigots, psychopaths and conspiracy theorists of the online realm.

“Particularly in communities dominated by a single newspaper, an Internet-based letters to the editor platform offering unlimited space, the opportunity to debate both other readers and the journalists responsible for the paper’s news stories and editorials can reflect democratic self-government at its best,” Scheer wrote. “However, this ideal can only be realized if editors take seriously their responsibility to edit.”

HSPA-member papers surveyed on the topic err on the side of ridding their sites of potentially libelous commentary.

At The Herald-Bulletin (Anderson), factually inaccurate comments are deleted, said Editor Scott Under­wood.

The Star Press (Muncie) takes a similar route.

“Anything we know to be untrue is removed if it’s stated as fact,” said Execu­tive Editor Lisa Nellessen-Lara. “For example, ‘The mayor voted against a policy to ban smoking’ would be taken down if we know she voted for it. But when it comes to opinion – ‘The mayor is sympathetic to smokers’ – we leave it, as we can’t tangibly determine that answer.”

News organizations are equally protected under a 1996 federal law whether they screen comments or not, Scheer said in his column.

Section 230 of the Com­munications Decency Act shields newspapers that per­mit readers to post whatever they wish – injured parties can sue the authors of online comments but not the newspaper – as well as papers that edit comments, as long as editors don’t alter the meaning of a post.

The Star Press uses a third party to remove obviously offensive and questionable comments from its website, but the sheer quantity of posts makes it impossible to monitor every one, Nellessen-Lara said. A “report abuse” button allows readers to flag questionable content so editors can evaluate it.

“We will remove comments, but we won’t edit them,” Nellessen-Lara said. “It’s all or nothing.”

The Herald-Times (Bloom­ing­ton) uses the same ap­proach, Editor Bob Zalts­berg said.

The paper’s comments policy assures readers that editors won’t edit or alter content, but they will remove something if it is deemed inappropriate.

The paper relies on readers and staff members to flag a questionable post, he said.

“That comment then goes to a half-dozen moderators, who decide whether the post stays or goes,” Zaltsberg said.

Comments are deleted if they appear to be racist, contain obscenity, or accuse someone of a crime or contain other potentially libelous content.

“If someone posts something we know to be inaccurate but is not libelous, racist, obscene or any of the other things mentioned in our policy, we would likely let the commenters debate about it or perhaps go in ourselves to set the record straight in a separate post,” he said.

“We don’t take down comments simply because they are mean,” he said.

Such commenters are relatively few in number, although they are often loud and prolific, Scheer said in his column. And in those cases editing doesn’t equate to censorship, he said.

At the Tribune-Star (Terre Haute), editors delete questionable or offensive comments when they see them or when they are brought to the paper’s attention, Editor Max Jones said.

“For the most part, our commenters remain fairly civil, even when they’re riled up,” he said. “They seem to understand that if they want to be heard they have to remain within our liberal boundaries of civility.”