I emailed a reader recently, out of courtesy, to explain why I’d blocked a nasty comment he had tried to post on our website. He ended his reply with a written shrug of the shoulders: “Your website, your rules.”
He’s right about that; yet it was clear that he chose to believe I’d blocked his comment because I disagreed with his thinking about the story in question. That wasn’t the case.
Trying to establish reasonable guidelines for discussion on a comment section or forum is like trying to get a haircut using a blender: You can do it, but the procedure is challenging and the results might be ugly. Nevertheless, I find it helpful to share my thinking, lest any reader assume I have malice to differing opinions. In fact, the opposite is true.
Not only is it my policy — and good journalistic practice — to seek out various viewpoints, it’s actually in our interest to do so because it helps us drive site traffic. But putting such commercial considerations aside, I’m proud of how open Radio World is and has been during my tenure to publishing differing viewpoints.
We approve the great majority of comments. Among the few we block, virtually all violated one of a few commonsense rules: No profanity. No spam or ads. And no personal attacks on identifiable people or allegations of illegal behavior.
If you posted a comment and it doesn’t appear on our website within the next business day, feel free to email me to ask why. Note that comments may not appear until the next business day so wait a bit before emailing. It’s also possible there was a technical problem.
Truly, though, my life is easier when I hit “approve” rather than “delete.” I often try to contact people whose comments we block and invite them to post without the problematic wording. I do not attempt to edit or change posts myself, which would only muddy things.
(Interestingly, a high percentage of people who use abusive language do so under bogus email addresses.)
Even after I explain our few rules, someone on occasion will say I’m censoring them. Well, I’m not a government official, and freedom of the press belongs to the person who owns the press; so while you have a right to speak your mind in public, I’m not required to give you access to our platform.
However, as noted above, I pursue a relatively open, not closed, policy, with only a few pretty liberal ground rules.
You may enjoy reading a few examples of comments and my decision on whether I’d allow them on the website. These are either real or (because I don’t want to embarrass anyone) paraphrased while demonstrating the point:
“LPFMs are not and will never be ‘farm teams’ for professional broadcasters. … LPFMs are for broadcaster wannabees playing radio, retired radio engineers or religious broadcasters. Have you heard LPFM stations? LPFM equals jamming the FM band with useless noise.” Ruling: Yes. While this opinion is harshly stated, it’s not attacking a specific person or alleging illegal activity.
“To the previous commenter: I don’t know who you are and really don’t care. My station and team that runs and produces the programming are not broadcaster wannabees. … So please, take your comment and put it where the sun does not shine.” Ruling: No, but only because of the last phrase. Admittedly this is a tougher call, but readers have told me they don’t want personal attacks on our website. Here I emailed the person who posted and said I hoped he’d repost without the last phrase.
“The person named in your news article is a fraud, and I encourage anyone … to oppose his effort at the first possible opportunity.” Ruling: No. If you want to label someone publicly as a fraud, do it on your own website. And get a good lawyer.
“Joe Smith is a charlatan, and a man whom RIAA should seriously look into.” Ruling: No. See above.
“Help wanted! We’re looking for a good engineer. Send your email to firstname.lastname@example.org.” Ruling: No. Radio World offers a very affordable classified ad service for your Help Wanted or Gear for Sale ads.
“I saw your story about a filing with the FCC spelling out changes to AM rules. I can’t believe what this group is asking for. This would be terrible, terrible for the AM band. How can they think this cockamamie idea would work?” Ruling: Yes. The reader disagrees with an idea that had been put forth in a public forum; further, this comment attacks the idea, not the person. Whether Radio World agrees with either side, the subject matter is a legitimate topic for industry discussion.
“To the reader who asked about an RF solution: We sell FM transmitters and have realized a good number of projects all around the world for the entire satisfaction of our customers. Contact me at this email …” Ruling: No. Buy an ad.
“HotFlash renewable hand warmers are available on the Internet at the following URL …” Spam alert!
“Good tip in Workbench about HotFlash renewable hand warmers. I use them at a lot of my transmitter sites.” Yes.
“Most of my 35-year career at the FCC I worked as an enforcement attorney … Unless this ‘tiger team’ is composed of Batmen or a Superman, there’s no way it can accomplish anything but staying several steps behind whatever problem it is working on.” Ruling: Yes, the comment is about a matter of public policy.
“Thanks for the story about pirate radio. Someone should tell the FCC to check out the guy who runs the LPFM in Winslow, Ariz. He’s a former radio pirate.” Ruling: No. The statement alleges illegal activity by a person who may be identifiable. (Whether RW might pursue this as a story is a different question.)
“Thanks for the story about pirate radio. Someone should tell the FCC to pay more attention. I know of at least one LPFM that is run by a former radio pirate.” Ruling: Yes. No specific person is attacked or made subject to unverified allegations of illegal behavior.
“Good luck collecting that fine! There is an attorney in southern California who has falsified station renewals and construction permits over and over again. Well beyond five years and he is still running the FCC in circles.” Ruling: Yes, for the same reason as the previous entry.
“Radio World has its head up its ass on IBOC.” Ruling: No. Readers have told us clearly they don’t want sexual or explicit offensive language.
“Radio World has no clue what it’s talking about on IBOC.” Ruling: Yes. We don’t block comments on grounds that a person disagrees strongly with RW or a person quoted.
“The previous comment is exactly the kind of idea I’d expect from a Republican (or Democrat, Muslim, Christian, Jew, Obamafan, neo-conservative, tea partier, blah blah blah).” Ruling: No. (In rare cases, policies expounded by political parties are central to a story, and therefore subject to fair comment, but most comments along these lines are gratuitous.)
A corollary situation arises sometimes when we cover a public person who has spoken out on an issue, and readers post the strong reactions to the quoted opinions. The person in our news story may then complain to me that Radio World is too liberal in allowing critical comments about his or her quoted comments.
I take such feedback seriously; but again, the distinction is whether a comment is a personal attack.
Let’s say you file a public letter with the FCC proposing a dramatic rule change. Don’t expect me to block strong disagreements about your issue. I will not allow readers to post ad hominem, personal attacks.
All of the above being said: An occasional reader will insist that he (it’s always a he) can see into my heart and knows my motivation for disqualifying a comment, even after I took the time to send a courtesy note explaining our rules. The vitriol I usually get back in reply only convinces me I was right in the first place.
As our Emily Reigart puts it: “Paul, you are fighting the good fight against trolls, but the Internet will always find some new version of bad manners.”