Comment policy evolution: Why you can’t just set it and forget it

Like your publication, your comment policy must evolve. Three years ago, when our staff first went online, we didn’t have a comment policy. Instead, we simply copied the letter policy from the print newspaper. It read:

We strive to report accurately and will  correct any significant error. If you believe such an error has been made, please contact us. Letters of any length should be submitted via e-mail or mail. They become the sole property of El Estoque and can be edited for length, clarity, or accuracy. Letters cannot be returned and will be published at El Estoque’s discretion.

While all of that was true, it didn’t seem as applicable on the Internet. As the site became more popular and students began to comment on stories regularly, a need arose for a more clear and comprehensive comment policy. Now, the editors revise the policy each year as needed. Here’s the current policy, which was added to the letter policy:

1.1 Abstain from using any language that is derogatory, abusive, libelous or discriminatory on the basis of race, religion, nationality, gender, sexual preference, age, region, disability, etc.
1.2 Do not post repeated messages, meaningless messages or “spam”.
1.3 Do not threaten other people in any comment you submit, including the author of the article other individuals that post comments on the site, etc.
1.4 Do not publish or distribute any content that advertises or solicits goods or services.
2.1 El Estoque Online reserves the right to delete, move or edit any comments that are deemed unacceptable.

If you’re working on developing a comment policy for your site, here are a few questions you want to ask yourself:

1. Will comments on the site be moderated before or after they are posted? My staff moderates comments from the back end of the site after they are posted. A list of the most recent comments appears when site administrators log in.
2. Do users have a way to flag comments? If users can flag comments as inappropriate, a message will be sent to moderators so that they can review the comment and decide how to handle it. If you don’t have this feature available on your site, you may want to read all comments before posting them.
3. Will users need to agree to the comment policy before posting? On our site, the policy is posted directly above the comment form. Other sites require users to register and log in prior to commenting. That way, you can force users to read and agree to the policy prior to registration.
4. How will you handle comments that violate your comment policy? Rather than deleting comments entirely, which you can do in most content management systems, consider removing part or all of the comment and replacing it with a message to the readers that the comment was removed by the moderator for violation of policy. You may even want to cite the violation.
5. How will you handle take down requests? Sometimes users may ask your staff to take down a comment posted by someone else. It’s a good idea to talk about how you plan to handle these situations before they happen.

Remember that your goal in developing a clear policy for your site is not to discourage commenting, but to encourage responsible participation. With a little forethought, your staff can do just that.

Michelle Balmeo

Michelle Balmeo, MJE, is the adviser of The Whirlwind newsmagazine and online news publication at West Albany High School in Albany, Ore. She's done some print stuff, some video stuff, and some web stuff over the past 16 years as a student media adviser.

Michelle Balmeo has 66 posts and counting. See all posts by Michelle Balmeo

2 thoughts on “Comment policy evolution: Why you can’t just set it and forget it

  • November 4, 2010 at 2:18 am

    Great ideas for consideration. I think the most important factor is to also make comments include their name and email.

  • November 6, 2010 at 4:09 pm

    Great comments. To your list I think it would be good to note that any substantial editing or change to incoming letters could jeopardize the neutrality protection of the host.

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