IT IS one of those curly questions that keeps online publishers guessing on a daily basis.
That is, how to deal with reader comments, and strike the right balance between freedom of speech and robust discussion, and civil, constructive and fact-based dialogue that adds value to debate.
Someone suggested to us this week that there must be a universal code that governs what is acceptable in online reader comments or not. The truth is there isn’t. It is up to publishers to determine the type of comments that are acceptable on their individual sites.
The ultimate over-riding rules, of course, are Australia’s defamation laws, which generally speaking apply to anything published or broadcast in Australia – including media articles, comments published on online articles, or even social media posts.
Deciding whether a line has been crossed is often a grey area. At what point does a comment go too far, and at what point does blocking a comment amount to unfair censorship?
What constitutes a fact can also be subjective. Two witnesses to the same event may often have at least slightly differing accounts. Whose version is the factual one?
There’s also the issue of ‘shooting the messenger’. If we as a media organisation publish a comment, does that mean we endorse and support the position espoused in that comment?
Our belief is absolutely not, but from reader feedback in recent weeks it is clear that some stakeholders on the receiving end of negative comments often believe that if we printed it, we must also believe it and share the same view.
For these reasons alone, moderating comments is a time-consuming and challenging process. It is why an increasing number of media organisations are removing online comments altogether.
We don’t agree with that approach.
In our view online news has created many benefits for people in rural Australia, giving them faster access to news, more competition and a greater diversity of choice.
The ability provided by online platforms for readers to react instantaneously, to provide new angles, perspectives and insights, to challenge statements, correct factual inaccuracies, and to participate in debates is one of the biggest advantages that sets digital news apart from print.
When we started Beef Central, we debated whether we should let readers comment anonymously, or only under real names. We decided on the latter. We knew this would result in fewer comments, but we felt it would lead to a higher standard of debate.
We also developed a comment policy to define what is acceptable, and what isn’t, when commenting on our site.
Frankly, our approach to managing comments is still a work in progress. We believe the standard of debate on Beef Central is much higher than it would have been had we allowed open-slather comments under the cover of anonymity. Reader surveys and regular feedback clearly shows us that comments are also a much-loved feature of the site.
But we also readily concede that we don’t always get the moderation process right.
Under pressure of time and deadlines, some comments aren’t always read or absorbed as thoroughly as they could be before being approved. Comments that perhaps shouldn’t be blocked sometimes are.
It is perhaps fair to say that given the choice between policing our comment policy to the letter, and trying to avoid unfair censorship of readers’ views, we have tended to err toward the latter.
There are occasionally times which cause us to revisit our approach and reassess whether we’re on the right track.
Like what happened last Friday.
In recent weeks Cattle Council of Australia has copped some fairly heavy criticism from senators, who after four years of investigating red meat industry representative structures, levy arrangements and market transparency and competition issues in three different inquiries, recommended that CCA lose its peak council status and a new national grassfed representative body be established in its place.
At the same time, former Australia Meat Holdings CEO John Gunthorpe, who has been agitating against Johne’s regulation and Cattle Council of Australia for several years, has established a new organisation that he believes should be the one to take over from Cattle Council.
He has been stridently criticising Cattle Council as part of his public campaign to build support for his new organisation, including numerous reader comments that have been published on Beef Central. His comments have been to the effect that CCA is “broke, moribund and dysfunctional”, that CCA directors fly business class to international trips that in his view are junkets, that some CCA staff are overpaid etc
CCA board members are all cattle producers who all serve voluntarily. No one likes being on the end of constant criticism, particularly for something you do without pay.
CCA president Howard Smith contacted Beef Central last Friday to complain that a comment we had published from John Gunthorpe amounted, in CCA’s view, to free and unfair advertising for an anti-CCA meeting being in Charters Towers, in direct breach of our comment policy.
No mention was raised of legal concerns in that phone call, so we were slightly puzzled to see comments attributed to Mr Smith in another rural publication later the same day stating that comments had been removed because of allegedly defamatory material. It was not made clear which publication was being referred to, but readers who brought the article to our attention were under the impression it was referring to Beef Central.
It should be clearly stated that on consideration, we chose to take the post down. In contrast with media reports, there was no coercion or pressure from CCA whatsoever.
That aside, the biggest issue we see with online comments are those that try to “attack the person, not the ball”.
There is no question in our view that comments should be able to deal with an issue without resorting to trolling, insulting, or abusing people or organisations involved, and we will be focusing more heavily in future on ensuring personal attacks aren’t accepted.
We reserve the right to edit comments to remove material we don’t believe is factual, or appropriate. This is our site, if visitors don’t like the rules, there are countless other opportunities for people to express their views elsewhere on the worldwide web.
A final point: in our opinion it would also be extremely disturbing to see industry debate shut down by a representative organisation threatening legal action against its critics.
Just as we respect the right of people to be treated fairly and with respect, so to is it essential that the need for freedom of speech and open and robust debate about industry affairs be protected.
Some critics have told us they don’t believe we should allow comment threads because they can become dominated by smaller, more vocal groups with particular agendas and a lot to say.
We emphatically disagree. We believe the fairest way to ensure open and robust industry debate is to ensure platforms are open to all. Whether individuals or groups choose to actively explain their positions or not is up to them.