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On trolls and flame wars

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On Monday, KARK 4 News posted this question on its Facebook wall: "One of our fans raised a question about Robert E. Lee Day ... Are there any Lee Day activities where you are?" Even if the station hadn't omitted Martin Luther King Jr. Day (the federal holiday that coincides with the state holiday in honor of Robert E. Lee), similar posts on other local TV Facebook pages suggest an inevitable conclusion: a long, often incomprehensible string filled with racial intolerance, if not obvious racism, and ad hominem attacks. A sample post from the KARK thread: "What African American people fail to realize, is their forefathers were sold by their tribes in Africa because of the laws they broke there. And they were brought here. The south will always and has always been fair."

Welcome to the downside of what we in the media call community engagement. Most online news outlets seem to agree that it's essential. John Paton, CEO of Digital First, a newspaper management company that controls the second largest newspaper chain in the country, envisions reader comment and input representing a third of his papers' content (with old fashioned local news and aggregation making up the rest of the pie, respectively). But effectively maintaining and managing that reader interaction remains a difficult proposition.

"I think comments raise the level of debate if they help expand the conversation to people who didn't get a voice in the article," said Conan Gallaty, director of Arkansas Online, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette's website. "I think that's a good thing. The difficulty is that it gets too tangential, people start getting off topic, insults get thrown and the topic gets heated."

To manage comments, Arkansas Online requires users to register with their subscriber name. Users are allowed to pick other screen names, but one click on the user's screen name reveals the subscriber name. So generally, it's not hard for other users to find a real name behind a comment. Gallaty said the paper has received hate mail for that policy, but said, "We do believe in people standing behind their statements."

Likewise, late last year KTHV integrated its website into Facebook. Online producer Lindsey Tugman said it keeps users more honest. "They can't hide behind user names. It also makes the commenting more mature." The station also maintains a Facebook page that's been "liked" by more than 62,000 that includes links to news stories, breaking news and discussion questions. Tugman is one of four online news producers who monitor comment sections from morning until at least after the 10 p.m. newscast.

Todd Gill, one of the co-founders of the online-only site Fayetteville Flyer, said his site, like the Arkansas Times, allows commenting from users writing under aliases. When the Flyer has a big story live, Gill said he wakes up in the middle of the night to monitor comments.

Rob Heverling, news director for KARK, said he and several others in the newsroom monitor comments on the station's website and Facebook page. But unless someone is personal attacking someone else or using a lot of profanity, he said the station rarely deletes posts. "We like people to be able to express their point of view," he said.

Heverling's position closely mirrors a web ideal: a diverse, democratic free exchange of ideas is worth the attendant incivility. At the same time, in the news world there's a contradictory metaphor, according to Arkansas Online's Gallaty. "The expression you hear most often is an untended garden, which starts off beautiful, but if left untended can grow too many weeds and choke off what you're really trying to do."

Arkansas Online offers detailed guidelines in its terms of use policy online for commenters while reserving the right to pull any comment any time and for any reason. When commenters get out of line, the Arkansas Online web team takes them off the thread and explains to them what they've done wrong. If users persist, their accounts might be suspended. Gill's policy at the Fayetteville Flyer is more cut and dried: no profanity, no name-calling and no switching aliases more than once in 24 hours. When users ignore the rules, their comments are removed and replaced with a note explaining that a comment had been removed. "I think that's better than simply deleting. People see that someone is looking and paying attention and that there are rules you have to follow," he said.

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