From the public editor: How to foster better debate, and fewer trolls

February 2, 2012

The Globe and Mail, like most media outlets, loves a good debate.

We believe in a full airing of diverse points of view. Online, our discussions are intended to be insightful, civil and to add to the public discourse - but there are some users on our site who don't follow the basic guidelines that say no personal attacks, offensive language or unsubstantiated allegations.

It's too easy right now for a few trolls to lob potshots at the subjects of our stories, even children, ethnic or religious groups and our writers.

We have taken steps to promote the smart commenters, giving our community of readers the power to vote one good comment to the top of the thread.

And you, our users, have the power to ignore any commenter who annoys you by hovering over the grey icon and clicking the stop sign, or clicking the exclamation mark to report that user's profile for abuse (note: you must be logged-in to your Globe commenting account to use these features).

Any reader can also report an individual comment as abusive, and it is immediately placed in a queue for review and possible removal by our moderators, who are on the job 24/7.

But we need to do more, and are looking at many models. Recently, both washingtonpost.com and nytimes.com announced changes to their policies. The Washington Post says they are going to be more aggressive about banning low-quality commenters and deleting offensive comments.

The Post has also encouraged more reporters to post in the commenting threads, especially on their own stories. That is something several of our staff have been doing regularly in the past year and a half - a few examples include Drive columnist Peter Cheney, reporters Steve Ladurantaye, Tu Thanh Ha and Dakshana Bascaramurty and senior communities editor Jennifer MacMillan.

Reporters use the comments as a way to quickly address reader questions and concerns, and keep the debate on track. It's been positive for our journalism because our reporters can learn new information and garner feedback.

The New York Times is giving special privileges to readers who become a trusted commenter and they are also encouraging their staff to jump in more and interact with readers.

We are looking at those models among others and are continuing to examine new features and tools to roll out in the months to come. Please forward me any thoughts you have. Here's a selection of e-mails I've received on the subject and my answers.

Like a lot of readers I love the G/M and the G/M comment section, and like many others I take the time and trouble to be concise and coherent. I try to play by the rules. Sometimes my comment gets deleted but I don't know why. It might be helpful if once a week a deleted comment were highlighted and an explanation for its removal provided. I don't want to write a comment only to see it deleted minutes later, especially if I feel the complaint was frivolous in the first place.

Sylvia Stead: Thank you. It's hard to know why your comments were deleted without seeing them. It's possible something fell into the categories list: obscene or vulgar, hate speech, personal attack, advertising/spam or copyright/plagiarism. Our moderators review more than a thousand comments every day, and can sometimes misunderstand the context of the comment. When those cases are brought to our attention, we will review the comment and sometimes reinstate the post. If you want to know why a comment was deleted, please send it along to community@globeandmail.com.

I only hope that you do not feel inclined to pay too much attention to those who post of the Globe and Mail's forums. Thousands of people read the Globe, but the forums are dominated by a couple hundred or so very opinionated and mostly partisan posters, and that's not to mention to real extremists on there. The posters are a vocal - I would say mostly rabid - minority of readers. If you want to know what readers think, you will have to poll readership, because what you are going to get from the forum types will be immediate, over-the-top, and probably never-ending, mostly complaining about what a terrible job the Globe and Mail does in covering "Party X" while giving great coverage to "Party A." It's an ongoing and eternal cat-fight.

Sylvia Stead: Well said.

I would like you to demand that G&M stop shutting off comments to its sensitive stories (legal, government, geopolitical such as Middle East stories). This is censorship and should not be allowed in a democratic country. By completely shutting down all comments, G&M is doing the opposite to freedom of the press and a free society's expression of their views through comments.

Sylvia Stead: We shut off comments due to legal reasons, not for government or geopolitical reasons. We shut down to avoid issues of contempt of court in ongoing trials or police investigations. We trust that our readers can have a civil conversation, however we reserve the right to close down a conversation if it goes off the rails with too many personal attacks or if it involves putting others at risk. Comments on government or geopolitical stories are never closed by default, although there are rare cases where we the readers' debate becomes so offensive or abusive that we do take this action

I will be gathering questions weekly and responding to issues here. Please e-mail me your thoughts at publiceditor@globeandmail.com

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