Washington Post, comments off

What happens when a newspaper’s blog becomes a battleground for flame wars? The Washington Post found out this week, and they didn’t like it one bit.

Executive Editor Jim Brady explained why comments had been turned off on the WaPo’s Editor blog:

“At its inception, the purpose of this blog was to open a dialogue about this site, the events of the day, the journalism of The Washington Post Company and other related issues. Among the things that we knew would be part of that discussion would be the news and opinion coming from the pages of The Washington Post and washingtonpost.com. We knew a lot of that discussion would be critical in nature. And we were fine with that. Great journalism companies need feedback from readers to stay sharp.

But there are things that we said we would not allow, including personal attacks, the use of profanity and hate speech. Because a significant number of folks who have posted in this blog have refused to follow any of those relatively simple rules, we’ve decided not to allow comments for the time being. It’s a shame that it’s come to this. Transparency and reasoned debate are crucial parts of the Web culture, and it’s a disappointment to us that we have not been able to maintain a civil conversation, especially about issues that people feel strongly (and differently) about.”

I’ve been wondering what the legal issues are for media outlets that allow comments on their site. After last semester’s Media Law class, I can start to see the conflicts here:

  • If you allow a free-for-all in your feedback/comments/forums, you risk that there will be some libel and nasty language and ad hominem attacks thrown around.
  • But, when you offer your readers a place to publish, unedited, you are pretty much acting as a distributor and not a publisher, right? So the newspaper can’t be held responsible for the crap people freely post on your message boards.
  • However, if you moderate comments/forums by deleting anything vulgar/libelous, aren’t you then exercising editorial control and taking legal responsibility for what gets posted there? I think so, legally speaking. (IANAL…)

So, should newspaper websites moderate comments/forums and take responsibility for editorial control over them, or should they call themselves distributors and let the flame wars burn what they may?

What do you think?


[tags]newspapers, Washington Post, media law, libel[/tags]