NPR Tightens Commenting Rules And Juan Williams Praises Public Radio

NPR announced new procedures and policies Wednesday to improve the level of discourse on its comment section on NPR.org.

This move is not in reaction to the vitriol that erupted over the attack in Cairo on CBS Correspondent Lara Logan. NPR has been fine-tuning new rules as the Digital Team tried to find the right balance between totally unmoderated comments and just enough pre-moderation to create a comfortable space for productive conversations.

NPR hopes a new commenting process will improve the quality of conversations on NPR.org.

hide captionNPR hopes a new commenting process will improve the quality of conversations on NPR.org.

iStockphoto.com

Mark Stencel, NPR's managing editor for digital sent out this staff email saying NPR wanted to raise the level of comment discussion and rein in the occasional abusive comments and spam.

"The discussions on NPR.org are for the most part thoughtful and lively. And we know we can count on our audience for strong opinions," said Stencel. "We're used to that. Our rules are hardly onerous — be polite, don't use obscenities. . . If anything, as a public media organization we are inclined to be more open than what some other national news organizations might be comfortable allowing — and that is still the case.

"But we are concerned about the small percentage of our users who actually violate the simple rules we have set out as well as the handful of pesky trolls who make a sport of inciting online arguments wherever and whenever they can."

Stencel also encouraged NPR reporters to join the conversation that ensues after their stories are posted.

So what's going to be different?

Previously all comments were posted without any intervention by NPR and and if flagged by other users, then reviewed by an outside agency NPR hired last fall.

Now, some comments — including anything submitted by a new user — will be reviewed before they are posted. Stencel doesn't expect a long delay between submitting a comment and posting.

"Once users establish a track record of good behavior, they will graduate to a status that will allow their comments to appear as soon as they are submitted," said Stencel.

The changes go into effect immediately.

"Our audience still has a lot of latitude to bluntly tell us and each other what they think," said Stencel. "But we still have the right to flag and remove ANY comments we think erroneously made it through our defenses."

The "Report Abuse" link will still appear next to every comment, and I would encourage you to use it if you see a posting that you think violates the rules linked above.

An editorial statement explaining these changes was posted on npr.org along with an accompanying Frequently Asked Questions page.

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Another aspect of commenting is identifying oneself.

I am a strong advocate of doing away with anonymous comments. Sometimes the comments on this blog are thoughtful, provocative and raise a point I hadn't thought of. That's the way it should work, in my mind.

But that's not what usually happens.

I often wonder what the dialogue might be like in a face-to-face setting, if people would be so harsh or make personal attacks.

One easy solution is to require members of NPR's community sign in through Facebook, as Facebook is about people knowing who you are and, for the most part, using recognizable photos.

Jim Rainey of the Los Angeles Times wrote a thoughtful piece about commenting on news sites, which largely agrees with me that anonymity contributes to a mean-spirited forum.

A listener wrote in with a possible solution to the "to be or not to be" anonymous problem. Timothy Nott, of Madison, WI, works at www.Madison.com.

"We are considering a two-tier commenting platform that separates people who are willing to post under their actual identity and those who wish to remain anonymous," wrote Nott. "The hope is that anonymity is the root of
the bad behavior and that identity can serve as a cultural currency. Behave and prosper. Misbehave and decline. Plenty of technical hurdles to jump, but the investment may be worthwhile if we can foster useful commenting."

Go for it, I say.

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Big but nice, classy surprise to hear Juan Williams singing the praise of public radio on WOSU in Columbus, OH Monday. Williams was fired last October and has been sharply critical ever since of NPR and Ellen Weiss, the former senior v.p. for news. Weiss resigned in early January - a partial casualty of the poorly handled firing.

Williams, now a full-time commentator for Fox News, appeared Monday on All Sides with Ann Fisher. Williams is writing a book about free speech and the difficulty of speaking out on sensitive topics.

Williams praised local public radio saying, "local news reporting on public radio stations is almost irreplaceable," according to Tom Rieland, WOSU's general manager.

The 20-minute conversation is worth listening to.

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