“Never read the bottom half of the internet.” It’s a modern proverb. Underneath so many news stories and opinion pieces is a pit of frothing bile. It doesn’t matter how uncontroversial or well-written the article is; there’s no guarantee that the comments won’t be a jumble of personal attacks, conspiracy theories and offensive remarks.
The trouble is, sometimes comments go beyond mud-slinging and become a serious legal or moral issue. That’s why, if you’re responsible for a newspaper or magazine website, you need a policy on how to deal with comments.
Our April newsletter carried a piece about the Oxford Mail’s exemplary coverage of Operation Bullfinch, a sex-trafficking story. Everything that made it into print was written and edited with the journalists’ legal and ethical obligations in mind, but this responsible reporting was nearly undone by the actions of others. Jason Collie told the NUJ:
“The website had comments on the suspected ethnicity of the men, which we took down as soon as we were aware of them. We are part of the community and we have to be responsible. You don’t want a whole section of the community suffering reprisals as a result of what’s going on. Ethnicity was not relevant to this story.”
It’s easy to be a bully online, because you can hide behind anonymity or pseudonymity. These racist commenters knew they didn’t have to be accountable in the same way as a trained, named reporter, but they still got a platform on a newspaper website for stirring up hatred towards a whole ethnic group. In the process, they risked prejudicing the trials as well.
The Oxford Mail’s approach was to delete any published comments that could be seen to incite racism or cause legal headaches. Some websites have a policy of moderating, or vetting comments before allowing them to be published at all – but counterintuitively, this is more risky from a legal point of view.
Chris Frost, chair of the NUJ’s Ethics Council, explains:
“Many newspapers and broadcasters don’t moderate websites for fear of making themselves liable. If they can claim innocent inclusion, it’s then easy to remove offensive comments.”
The law on this isn’t fully tested, though in 2009 solicitor Imran Karim sued Newsquest over allegedly libellous reader comments about him. The court found in favour of Newsquest and it appears that its decision not to moderate comments was a factor in this decision. If comments are published automatically with no intervention from the publisher, this means less legal culpability for the publisher – provided they act swiftly when something is brought to their attention.
Combine this legal quirk with the staffing pressures on the average newspaper and it’s not surprising that the default action is to do nothing. Unless there’s a good reason for journalists to carefully watch comments on a story, racist and inflammatory language can stay online indefinitely. It’s time to talk about what we, as the NUJ, can do about changing that.