Sunday, April 11, 2021
April 11, 2021

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From the Newsroom: We reserve right to reject comments

The Columbian
Published:

One of the things that hasn’t changed about being a journalist is getting comments on your stories. Back when I was a rookie reporter in the early 1980s, our small-town news bureau was located in an old jewelry store about a block from the Okanogan County Jail. Inmates who had done their time were released about 8:30 a.m., and it wasn’t unusual for them to walk down the hill, pop into the office and deliver their story comments to me in person.

Nowadays, social media will save you the trip. You can just add comments to stories posted on our website using your Facebook account. We require people to post through Facebook because we want them to use their real name, and not a handle like “Mr. Happy.”

Believe it or not, the Facebook comments are often more uncivil than any of the comments that I used to get in person. (Maybe the fact that I stand 6 feet, 4 inches tall has something to do with it.) But we have policies in place to deal with those uncivil comments, and all of our editors are empowered to take down inappropriate posts.

The Columbian’s policy is pretty straightforward: Don’t make personal attacks on other people making comments. Keep your comments clean. Don’t spread unsubstantiated rumors. Don’t violate other peoples’ privacy. You can read all of the rules at Columbian.com/Guidelines.

Generally, our system works pretty well. We hide comments occasionally because someone wanders too far out of line. And despite our spam filter, we still get some of those “Make $1 million working at home!” messages that we have to zap. A few dozen people have made our “permanent ban” list after repeatedly violating our policies.

But, the comments mostly do what they are intended to do, which is create an opportunity for dialogue and feedback on stories.

On rare occasions, the electronic atmosphere becomes too toxic so we shut off the comments. Most recently, we decided to do that on several stories involving shootings by Vancouver police, beginning with a Wednesday, Feb. 20, story about a teenager who was shot and killed after officers responded to a report of a domestic violence incident at an apartment complex.

There were just too many problematic elements here: The emotional reactions on the part of readers who hate all cops and those who always support our police. We reported the fact that the officer who shot the teen had previously been reprimanded for an anger problem, and that the teen had a recent conviction for assault with a knife. The officer and the teen were of different ethnicity. And, of course, the biggest problem is that police were still investigating, so there were very few established facts and a lot of speculation.

We did briefly allow comments on the story, but after about an hour, we shut them down. In my mind, they had veered too quickly toward speculation about the motives of both the officer and the teenager. I thought some of the speculation was potentially hurtful to the families of both parties. And I didn’t think there was going to be much chance of additional light shed on this, given that the facts were still under investigation.

In the following stories about this case and two more officer-involved shootings, we turned comments off from the beginning. If you want to see some of the ugly things people said, you can check our Facebook page — we can’t cut off the comments posted there — or look at comments on other media sites. Incidentally, not every media organization allows comments these days. Several of the Portland TV stations don’t. OregonLive and the Portland Tribune do.

For right now, I think our policy is the right way to go for The Columbian. But we will still reserve the right to shut off comments when they get out of hand.

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