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Gazette Premium Content The Gazette answers your questions concerning online commenting

By Joe Hight Updated: February 9, 2014 at 8:17 am

The Gazette's audience is passionate about commenting.

I discovered this after my initial column a couple of weeks ago that asked gazette.com readers to be more civil to each other when they are commenting on stories. The column generated more than 1,100 Facebook shares, at least 260 comments and dozens of emails.

One email came as far away as eastern West Virginia.

Paul Rosa of Charles Town wrote he thinks Colorado Springs is one of the best family destinations in the country and that he reads The Gazette online every day. He wished me luck in dealing with online commenting while adding that The Journal, his local newspaper in Jefferson County, had eliminated commenting. Other newspaper editors and journalists who I know across the country lament the lack of civility in commenting. The Spokesman-Review in Spokane, Wash., even decided to eliminate commenting for 10 days during the holiday season. One journalist, calling it the "gutters of journalism," wrote in response to my column: "There's something about being behind the screen that makes people lose their mind."

Rosa has similar feelings: "I feel such boorish behavior is poisoning the wells across the land. As with everything else, a few bad apples can ruin things for everybody else."

Gazette readers also wrote to express their dismay about issues with commenting, and several made great points. One was Curtis Hilyard, a subscriber for 13 years, who used to comment on stories "until incivility, personal attacks, and name-calling came into play. To this day, I no longer make any more replies because of it." He added my column "was a breath of fresh air."

Hilyard pointed out that I didn't specifically mention racial attacks in my initial column, even though I did mention "personal attacks." He is absolutely correct, so I want to state again that I stand behind the remarks I made in the first column with the addition that racial attacks and racist remarks will not be tolerated.

Gazette Social Media Manager Dalton Walker banned a commenter for a racist remark last week. Besides that one, we also have banned commenters with false names or those using commenting for spam advertising - the "$70,000 work at home" ones. We have warned three others about their comments after deleting them.

In the two weeks since the first column, you have asked many questions, too. I will seek to answer them with general questions based on what was asked or said in either the comments or emails sent to me.

Here they are:

Q. Why does The Gazette remove comments that don't agree with its editorial page viewpoint? Or, are you going to ban comments on social issues?

A. I can assure you we have never banned gazette.com commenters or even removed comments for disagreeing with our Opinion page stances, or removed comments for taking stances on social issues. However, we have found Facebook sometimes hides comments when someone else on Facebook reports them as "spam." We are looking into this issue, and are even considering whether we should go to another commenting system because of issues created by Facebook commenting.

Q. Why do you attach labels to public officials on the editorial page and criticize public officials for their stances? Doesn't that go against what you've written in the column?

A. We received many comments and questions in this area. Public officials and those in the public spotlight are held to higher standards than those in the private sector. One reason we banned comments on most crime stories is that commenters were attacking victims, private individuals thrust into the public spotlight by a tragic event. I speak occasionally on the subject to public officials, and I tell them to: "Expect more scrutiny as you are named or elected to higher offices. Or, gain public acclaim. My father said, 'You have to pay the fiddler if you want to dance.' That goes for journalists as well as public officials. As you go higher in public office, accept that you have to support your speculative comments with facts and that you'll be seen unfavorably if you say, 'No comment' - the worst comment of all. Expect criticism if you make decisions that go against the norm. Thomas Jefferson did. Abraham Lincoln did. John F. Kennedy did. So why shouldn't you? Accept that criticism with grace, diplomacy and reasons for your decisions." Our Letters to the Editor and Op-Ed page oftentimes carry opposing views to our editorials and criticism of our stories or headlines. The Editorial Board members are clearly listed on the "Opinion" pages in print and online. The news pages, however, seek to be fair and balanced to all sides and avoid the labels that are sometimes attached to presidents and other major public officials.

Q. How is The Gazette going to define what is and what is not a personal attack, personal insults, threats, bullying, name-calling?

A. This is an actual question and a good one. Yes, we will make some judgments as to what defines a personal attack or insult. However, most will be those that carry curse words, racist remarks, name-calling of another commenter or, even worse, threats against one. I've read "idiot," "moron" and "clown" used against other commenters. I've read curse words - those "four-letter words" - used to describe a person or as a reaction to a comment. I've read "Do you want to take this outside?" Come on, can we not be reasonable? Can we not state our opinion on an issue, even a criticism of a public official without resorting to cursing, attacks, threats or bullying? Yes, someone disagreed with you. State your reasoning about what you think and move on. When the criticism or labeling is of a public official, we will discuss internally whether the comment is warranted. Most times, we'll leave it for what I stated above. When it is against a private individual or fellow commenter, we'll be much more vigilant when we see it or it is called to our attention.

Q. Will there ever be a forum on commenting such as you did in the past?

A. We'll consider whether one could really help prevent crude behavior or attacks against each other. However, I wonder if those people who do it would even attend. I'm told the worst offenders did not attend the meet-and-greet that The Gazette held in the past.

Q. Gazette staff members are sending me threatening private messages. What are you going to do about that?

A. We checked and have not found any instances or evidence that Gazette staff members were doing this before or since I became editor in December 2012. However, if you ever feel at any point you've been threatened by anyone, please take a screen shot or send an example to comments@gazette.com. We will look into the matter immediately.

Q. I represent an organization. Are you going to ban me because I post comments on behalf of the organization?

A. While we encourage individuals to comment in their own names, we will allow a person representing an organization to comment if they are verified as representing the organization. Otherwise, like we do with those who use false names or fake accounts, we will ban them. One reader also admitted to me that he had used a fake name because he felt it was the only way he could comment without reprisals. I invited him to return with his real full name. Until that time, he cannot comment. It's unfair to others who do use their names.

It's important that commenters understand that we want you to comment. We want you to take stances on issues. We want you to feel free to exercise your rights to speak freely.

We will only take action against those commenters who hide behind false names or organizations, create spam advertising, or when they cross the lines of vulgarity, racism, personal attacks, threats and name-calling against other commenters, especially those who are private individuals or organizations.

You can continue to have a sense of humor, too, as one commenter who wrote "Go Broncos!" did on an unrelated news story just before the Super Bowl. It wasn't deleted.

A comment that criticizes the president when the story is about a local high school sports event probably will be deleted.

We don't want to follow the path of the West Virginia newspaper. Help us so we can continue commenting for all in the future.

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Contact Joe Hight: joe.hight@gazette.com

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