While blogs offer a welcome change to the one-way communication of traditional journalism, allowing blog comments can be both a blessing and a curse.
In the book we look at methods to cope with comments. Some articles on news sites and blogs can receive over 200 comments, which sounds great until you realise what a headache they can be to manage. It’s highly likely that many comments will be from the same people i.e your most engaged users who comment regularly. Some comments may well be spam adverts. More seriously, some comments will raise legal issues and you must take swift action if you are alerted to legal problems. So comments can be a load of hassle and this has resulted in some bloggers, sadly, having to switch the function off.
Blogs are a conversation and the aim for any good blogger is to encourage an interaction and a public discussion. One of the best ways to encourage useful debate if for you, as a blog owner, to take an active role in the conversation. Your comments can keep a debate on track and encourage new users to contribute. By responding to the most thoughtful comments, you will also play an important role in encouraging a high quality debate.
Setting up a system
No editor in their right mind would allow unfiltered user comments to be broadcast on TV or appear in a printed paper, but it seems like anything goes on some news sites.
The options for handling comments are obvious:
This is the process whereby user comments are checked (normally by a human i.e. community editor) before they are published on a site.
WordPress and most other CMS allow you to set up spam and swearword filters which bins the most offensive comments. However, it takes a human to check comments for legal issues.
Tip: WordPress includes a setting that allows comments to be posted straight away if the comment author’s email address matches the address of a previously approved comment. By using this tool, you can make it easier for those users who have built up a track record of posting quality comments to appear on the site straightaway without editing.
The BBC, as part of its Editorial Guidelines (date unknown), states how it handles the pre-moderation of user submitted comments:
Moderators will not normally edit contributions for grammar or spelling although they may edit for use of strong language. Comments with substantial problematic content are normally rejected as a whole rather than edited. We should give a reason and the general rule is that user contributions may be resubmitted once altered.
Pre-moderation is labour intensive and many sites do not have the resources to employ community editors.
Post-moderation / reactive moderation
BBC Editorial Guidelines state where post-moderation should be used:
A minority of areas where users contribute on the BBC site are postmoderated. Postmoderation allows users to see their comments being published without delay while every message is read by a moderator. Postmoderation is likely to be suitable, for example, for sites which attract robust debate about current affairs.
Controversially, some news sites rely exclusively on their own website users to ‘self-police’ comment boards and report offensive posts to the community editor.
A range of other ways to moderate comments are available. For example, WordPress allows you to remove the comment box beneath any post of your choosing or all of them.
Some local news sites routinely remove the comment box on stories relating to immigration, race or the far right political party the BNP as these stories tend to attract extreme opinions and language that some find offensive.
The Rules of the House
A blog is your house, so it helps to set up some rules for your guests. A page of house rules can be used to encourage responsible behaviour among users. While it is doubtful whether many users will read them, they are handy to quote when dealing with users who persist in posting rubbish comments.
The Sky News website has a page of ‘House Rules’ (date unknown):
We want you, the users, to enjoy the discussion boards and blogs and make them a forum for intelligent and vigourous debate. You must not post comments which: Make unfounded or unproved allegations (especially of wrongdoing) against a person, organisation or group. Contain swear words or language which may offend. This may include swear words with asterisks replacing some letters. Break the law, or encourage/support breaking the law. This includes libel, contempt of court and breach of copyright. Discuss active UK court cases. Advertise goods or services. Include URLs of third party websites which may contain offensive or illegal material Are racist, sexist, homophobic, abusive or otherwise objectionable. Include personal details (yours or someone else’s such as phone numbers and addresses). Are made to appear as if they have been posted by someone else (impersonation). Are repeated more than once (spam). Deviate wildly from the topic of the thread or blog. Anyone who submits material which breaks these rules or our Terms and Conditions, or abuses the system, may be banned from contributing in the future, and could be reported to the authorities