The Janesville Gazette drew national attention for its recent decision to shut down its online comments section for certain types of stories - namely, those that concern crime, courts, accidents, race or sex.
"We and other papers identified those topics as the most troublesome," explained editor Scott Argus in a Nov. 7 column. "Those of us who monitor conversations...have found ourselves consistently removing comments from such discussions and ultimately disabling threads. People simply can't or won't behave."
Last Thursday, the paper went further, announcing that readers must henceforth click on a bar to see comments instead of having them automatically appear. This was done, Argus stated, because "we've seen the attraction for commenters and lurkers and the disdain and disgust of people who think comments are inappropriate and generally vile."
Yikes. Newspapers initially raced to allow comments as part of their determination to have a "conversation" with readers. Now they're realizing that what some readers have to say is not an improvement on silence.
One major Madison media outlet came to this conclusion long ago, without a lot of fanfare. Madison.com, the website for the Wisconsin State Journal and The Capital Times, has disallowed comments on stories dealing with crime and courts for about two and a half years, says P.J. Slinger, the site's online editor.
Exceptions are made for policy-based crime and courts stories, like those done by Steve Elbow at the Cap Times. But the problems posed by run-of-the-mill crime and courts stories proved too difficult to manage.
Slinger says readers would post their own experiences with individual suspects or defendants, commenting on their culpability, essentially "trying them in the comments section of the newspaper." After this happened on "story upon story upon story, we sort of sat down and said, 'What is the point of posting these comments?'"
Bill Novak, who does much of the Cap Times' crime reporting, supports this decision, saying it soon became clear that "people's anger and vitriol can rise on stories involving crime and the courts." Readers would "say things that were just totally inappropriate" or leap to unfair conclusions. "It seemed to bring out the worst in people."
Ed Treleven, the State Journal's courts reporter, agrees, saying some posted comments were "libelous," while others included hurtful remarks about crime victims.
On other stories, Madison.com purges comments on an individual basis. "We're probably deleting 5% of all comments," says Slinger. And when "the discussion is taking place on a level that third-graders would be embarrassed by" on a given story, the editors may disable the comment function, deleting all comments.
Moreover, Madison.com has long made viewers click to see posted comments, instead of just having them appear. (Isthmus includes comments with stories, but minimizes offensive commentary by requiring all posters to use their real names. See "The Downside of Anonymity," 4/22/10.)
Madison's three main TV news stations - WISC, WKOW and WMTV - allow viewers to comment on all kinds of stories. But all have policies regarding posts (WKOW's is succinct: "Please keep your comments civil and on point") and remove comments that cross the line.
"There are stories [that we] pay special attention to because [we know] they might set people off," notes David Hyland, managing editor of Channel3000, the website for WISC-TV.
But questionable comments still make it through. On the website for WKOW 27 last week, a story about the town of Vermont man who shot his TV in a rage over Bristol Palin's Dancing with the Stars appearance drew a comment claiming, "Mount Horeb and Vermont township have a long history of promoting and defending domestic violence." Another poster objected, calling this characterization "pretty extreme."
And a story last week on the conviction of Curtis Forbes for murdering his wife drew posts from people second-guessing the verdict and accusing witnesses of perjury. That too drew a rebuke, from another commenter: "I can't believe that a supposedly reputable TV news station allows this kind of trash on its website. Obviously the people commenting have strong PERSONAL feelings about the case - BUT obviously they don't know the truth either and at best can only speculate."
Welcome to the conversation.
What do you say to a naked litigant?
The city of Madison plans to appeal a judge's dismissal of a disorderly conduct citation against a participant in last June's World Naked Bike Ride in Madison.
As Isthmus reported ("The Naked Truth," 11/12/10), Madison Municipal Court Judge James Olds recently granted a motion to dismiss charges against Cesilee Dean, saying he didn't believe the city could prevail on its claim that riding a bike topless constituted disorderly conduct.
But City Attorney Michael May says that decision will be appealed. "The judge essentially ruled [that] anybody could ride naked in Madison and never be charged with disorderly conduct." He believes a person's clothing, or lack thereof, can be a factor in disorderly conduct.
Lana Mades, the assistant city attorney handling these cases, says she's asked the Municipal Court to hold off on pending prosecutions of other ride participants or to rule on other motions for dismissal so the city can appeal these along with Dean's case.
After her citation was dismissed, Dean asked police to investigate her complaint against officer Rene Gonzalez, who cited her, for allegedly refusing her post-arrest request to put on a shirt. She and boyfriend Jason Shaw say a Madison police investigator has indicated that Gonzalez will be "exonerated." Shaw did some checking and found that police "didn't even talk to any of the witnesses."
Lt. Linda Kosovac, the MPD's head of internal affairs, declines comment, saying "any conversation we have with our complainants stays with our complainants" and that "during the course of an investigation, we will not generally comment to the media."
The Wisconsin State Journal last week ran an interesting "Know Your Madisonian" profile on local historian Erika Janik. It concerned her book A Short History of Wisconsin, published in July by the History Press (Wisconsin Historical Society).
This is a fine and worthy book, but practically ancient history compared with Janik's brand-new offering, Madison: History of a Model City, also from the History Press. (Janik says the interview was done several weeks ago, before her new book was out.)
Janik provides a brief but invigorating overview of our fair city, from the days of native mound builders to the construction of Monona Terrace and the Overture Center. In one passage, she recounts the local temperance movement's comically ineffective efforts: "[It] even had trouble getting officials to enforce the law requiring saloons to be closed on Sundays."
The book's final and most forward-looking line challenges the city to "continue to balance its zeal for change and innovation with a healthy respect for its history and tradition, remembering that what we all hold dear will provide a way forward for all Madison residents."