Blog comments cross the line

There is such a fine line between wanting readers to comment on blogs and simultaneously monitoring what is said. On one hand, people should feel comfortable to express their opinion in a comment. What happens, however, when those comments cross the line and are considered dangerous?

Point in case: Gannett Blog, an independent blog on newspaper company Gannett, recently had an anonymous poster write a comment that Jim Hopkins, who writes the blog, felt uncomfortable with. Here’s the story:

Last Wednesday at 11:02 a.m. ET, a reader posted a comment, anonymously, in response to my call for workers who had already been laid off; I wanted their advice, to share with current employees.Anonymous@11:02 a.m.’s comment: “I brought a gun to work but decided not to use it.”

I did not know anything more about the author, including whether he or she was serious. It was one of more than 200 reader-posted comments that day. Indeed, I have no way of tracking or otherwise tracing any comment posted by anyone here. I do not have access to that information, nor do I want it.

How it was resolved
I provided no further information to Gannett or to anyone else, nor was I asked to. Later, I learned the following, from a series of e-mails sent to me yesterday and earlier by Connell and by Gannett’s general counsel, Kurt Wimmer:

By Sunday, Wimmer had spoken to the Justice Department’s Computer Crime Division. That evening, Google had provided to authorities the author’s geography at the time the comment was posted. Yesterday, Connell told me in an e-mail: “Google and the FBI found the person who posted the gun item and determined he is not a threat.”

Where do you draw the line with blog/story comments? Was the above comment a cry for help? If Hopkins had simply ignored it and then something happened, would others blame him? Who even knows if this comment was true. It could have been a lie. The question is, what does the editor do?

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I remember a few months ago, an editor and reporter for a different CNC/GateHouse paper were concerned about comments readers were writing about a 17 or 18 year old who had allegedly committed a crime. The comments were getting quite nasty and my colleagues weren’t sure where to draw the line. They ended up letting the comments stay up.

It occurs to me whether or not online comments are becoming a new ethical dilemma for papers. How responsible are editors and reporters for what is said online? Did Hopkins violate the trust of his readers/posters by telling Gannett corporate about the incident? Some might say he did.

Yet anonymous online comments almost shirk blame from the poster him/herself. With actual letters to the editor, a name and number must be provided so the letter can be confirmed. There is accountability. You are more than welcome to have an opinion, just own up to it. It’s almost cowardly to knowingly write something that will attract attention, like you brought a gun into work, but not saying who you are.

What do you think about all this? Should online comments sections make posters provide more information about themselves or is that unfair? Are posters not taking responsibility for their comments by posting anonymously?

1 Comment

Filed under Comments, From the blogosphere

One response to “Blog comments cross the line

  1. Doug

    This is not only an interesting ethical debate, but a legal one as well. It turns out the law for online is completely different from in print. For example, if a newspaper printed a threatening comment about a gun in the Letters section, it would be considered responsible. But comments online are solely the responsibility of the poster, as long as the newspaper site publishes it unedited. Therefore, libel and slander don’t apply. But does that mean newspapers get a free pass? Legally, yes. Ethically, I hope not.

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