In the afternoon of Sept. 11, 2001, just hours after the terrorist attacks, producers at the online counterpart of The New York Times launched a message board specifically designated to provide Internet users with the opportunity to talk about the catastrophic events of that morning.
Within three days, more than 2,000 messages were posted by people throughout the world. Like small-town neighbors who rush to the scene of disaster to offer support and assistance, posters used the board to close the geographical distance between themselves and the victims, and to authenticate – as it were – the horrors of the day.
But while much of the content communicated a sense of shock and disbelief, some contained vitriolic, ethnocentric opinions that clearly would not be acceptable within the arena of civil discourse.
“There are a lot of crazy people, and for a lot of them – online and off – Sept. 11 justified something in their minds,” said Kate Aurthur, senior producer-forums for NYTimes.com, a unit of The New York Times Company. “They wanted something to hate, and that was a good opportunity for them.”
Indeed, while new media analysts hail newspaper-hosted message boards as a potentially revolutionary communication tool, they also acknowledge the thorny ethical dilemmas created by a global medium that is simultaneously associated with traditional journalism but unrestrained by its conventions. On one hand, they say, message boards have the potential to contribute to an elevated level of discourse and debate among people unhindered by time differences and geographical distances. But on the other, they can have a hit-and-run quality where vitriolic or off-topic comments are posted by writers cloaked in the safety of anonymity.
While the level of discussion clearly can be elevated by the online presence of a message board moderator, participation by moderators raises additional ethical questions for a profession that strives for the appearance of objectivity: To what extent – if any – do moderators share their opinions in a space both public and global? And to what extent do their postings influence public perceptions about the newspapers that host the message boards?
A CIVIL COMMUNITY
Abusive, inappropriate or off-topic postings can tarnish the reputation of the newspaper and poorly serve the needs of the online audience. But how to handle them – if at all – is a topic of debate in a profession grounded in the fundamental tenets of the First Amendment. Some say messages should be pre-screened and approved by online staff before they are posted. Others say inappropriate messages should be deleted by online moderators, although they are quick to point out the fine line between deleting “inappropriate” content and censorship. Still others favor a hands-off approach that allows the messages – and the messengers – to speak for themselves.
“The argument could be made that even the most vitriolic speech should be aired: Let’s get the anger, hatred and fear out on the table where we can deal with it,” said Jane Singer, a pioneering news manager at the Prodigy online service from 1986-90 and now a University of Iowa journalism professor who specializes in Internet issues. “There’s the idea that you can’t deal with the problems of the world without airing them, so the argument can be made that the ethical thing is to let everything go.”
That wasn’t the approach taken by NYTimes.com in the months after Sept. 11.
Shortly after the attacks, the existing and often volatile Middle East message board was closed in an effort to funnel posters to the newly created Sept. 11 message board. There, online staff monitored each message as it was posted and deleted messages deemed inappropriate.
“It’s based on my intuition about how the world should operate,” Aurthur said. “It’s very easy to tell who wants to discuss something and has an open mind, even if they have strong opinions, and who is there to spam and bully and alienate people.”
No postings were allowed on the Sept. 11 board when moderators were unavailable and, for about two months, the board was closed at night and reopened in the morning. It was the first – and only – time a NYTimes.com board has had continuous oversight and restricted hours, but Aurthur said it could happen again if the need arose.
“There were plenty of horrible, inappropriate things posted,” Aurthur said. “I understand why. I gave people a much wider berth than I normally would because of their rage and sadness. There were certain parameters I was setting, but they were more forgiving than they usually are.”
It’s possible that about 3 percent of the content was deleted in the early days following the terrorist attacks, Aurthur said, and the issue of censorship itself periodically fueled the debate. One poster argued that too much had been lost on Sept. 11 for anyone to take away freedom of expression on Sept. 12; another said terrorism had taken over the offices of The New York Times itself.
“The word censorship makes any journalist’s skin crawl,” said Lisa Todorovich, executive producer of Live Online, the moderated discussion section of washingtonpost.com. “Even considering the prospect is abhorrent. But, at the same time, we play a very specific role on the boards. Keeping the community fruitful and thriving has to take precedence over someone standing on the street corner yelling ‘Kill all the blanks.’ “
Indeed, many new media practitioners argue that keeping the community fruitful requires – and justifies – the deletion of uncivil discourse to prevent boards from becoming hopelessly off-topic, unproductive, free-for-alls.
“People who print with barrels of ink” need to make every accommodation for the free speech of others, said Bill Mitchell, editor of The Poynter Institute’s Poynter Online and former director of electronic publishing at the San Jose Mercury News’ online edition from 1992-95. “But readers and consumers of news look for – on a newspaper site as opposed to a Yahoo! board – a level of discussion that’s more civilized than a fight in a schoolyard.”
Like NYTimes.com and washingtonpost.com, many newspapers have developed and posted guidelines for message board users that typically encourage open exchanges of ideas and respectfulness while prohibiting illegal or injurious speech, off-topic postings and commercial messages. Offenders can be warned on the public boards or via private e-mail, and repeat violators can be barred from further participation. Some have software programs intended to filter out postings that contain obscenities and other inappropriate language. Many reserve the right to delete postings deemed unacceptable under the guidelines.
In the early days of message boards, many online newspaper managers believed that allowing discussion without intervention by moderators protected them from legal liability. In the same way a telephone company is not responsible for what people say on the telephone, online managers believed they were providing the conduit of information – the telephone lines, as it were.
But Mark Sableman, a St. Louis-based Internet attorney, says screening for objectionable content is clearly permissible under the law, and online newspapers can set their own policies about what is appropriate.
In an attempt to wrestle with the issue of appropriate message board speech, the online edition of The (Munster, Ind.) Times conducted an unscientific Web-based survey in 2001 that showed that 60 percent of the 120 respondents wanted “strict” or “very strict” posting rules. Ten percent wanted “no rules” and 30 percent wanted “very relaxed rules.”
“It’s a really big issue with a lot of really fine lines,” said Christine Tripunitara, new media coordinator for nwitimes.com, the online edition of The Times.
The issue becomes even more tenuous in the context of political speech, when one poster’s impassioned political opinion can be another’s inflammatory personal attack.
At the Christian Science Monitor’s online edition, political discourse is not censored, but civility is required.
“We won’t censor political opinions. You have the right to be wrong,” said Tom Regan, associate online editor. “But you can’t get personal. You can’t say ‘Kill all the Israelis’ or ‘Kill all the Muslims.’ We’re here to talk about ideas.”
In addition to the dilemmas inherent in defining and policing “inappropriate” speech, newspaper-hosted message boards also are plagued with postings that are, simply, wrong. And in a profession that holds accuracy as its hallmarks, errors are anathema that some say can erode the credibility of the hosting newspaper.
“But people post wrong things all the time,” said Tripunitara, whose operation at one time screened and approved messages before they were posted to a “guest book.” “When they were talking about taking ‘under God’ out of the Pledge of Allegiance, everyone objected and someone wrote ‘What’s next? Will they remove the Bible from the Statue of Liberty?’ But we left it.”
Some new media observers suggest that the solution to inappropriate and inaccurate postings lies partly with the moderators who oversee the boards. In addition to ensuring civil discourse unencumbered by unproductive personal attacks and inappropriate postings, active moderators can publicly question inaccurate information. They can pose discussion questions specifically intended to foster intelligent conversation, and they can contribute their own voices in hopes of setting a standard of appropriateness.
But participation by moderators raises a legal issue that warrants attention, said Sableman, the Internet attorney. While the law generally favors strong immunity from liability for interactive computer services such as message boards, a case decided by a federal district court in California last year suggests that people responsible “in part or in whole” for creation of content could be liable for postings that result.
“I would argue that the newspaper would not be liable for comments made in response to moderators’ questions,” Sableman said, “but I’d also have to be a little concerned after that California case, which essentially held that asking particular questions can make you responsible in part for the answers given. We’re all going to be watching that case closely.”
MODERATOR IN THE MIDDLE
Legal issues aside, the idea of moderators contributing to the discourse can be problematic in a profession traditionally bound by an ethic of objectivity. Prior to the 2000 presidential election, for example, a message board hosted by The Daily Home in Talladega, Ala., carried a posting criticizing the “yellow-dog Democrat” newspaper and a Gore-for-president editorial. A well-crafted response was written by Jim Smothers, then-online coordinator, who signed himself “a card-carrying member of the National Rifle Association and George W. Bush supporter.”
Maybe, maybe not, Smothers says.
“If your newspaper is going to have editorials that lean one way or the other, employees should have the same right,” he said. “In the context of a message board it’s fine, as long as it doesn’t carry over to the newspaper. The Internet is fun – you can’t take yourself too seriously.”
Still, Smothers says he would think twice about posting a similar message today.
That, experts say, may be the single biggest issue confronting online newspapers with moderated online message boards and hosted chats – to what extent do online journalists share opinions in this new, global public space? If they do share opinions, to what extent do their postings affect the credibility of the host newspaper? And to what extent are message board users able to distinguish the moderator, who may work for a separate corporate entity, from an employee of the newspaper?
“The hardest thing for media sites to get around is the question of objectivity,” said the Christian Science Monitor’s Regan. “What role does your moderator play? How much are they allowed to show their opinion? It’s an issue. It’s a question.”
Lindsay Howerton, who moderates the washingtonpost.com message boards, sees her role as a central force who bundles Post content for the online community and tries to stimulate informed discussion. She may question the accuracy of a posting, point out inconsistent logic, post comments intended to spur discussion and play devil’s advocate. She also may offer opinions, and her messages contain a disclaimer that the views of the moderator do not necessarily reflect the views of the Post.
“A lot of people believe the moderator is a totally neutral person,” Howerton said. “But ‘to moderate’ means ‘to mediate the extremes.’ It’s not a neutrality concept.”
Indeed, many new media practitioners say their moderators function as good party hosts who mingle with the guests to stimulate conversation without dominating it.
At NYTimes.com, moderators are cautioned to avoid being drawn into arguments by an online community that values debate and argument, but they can say what they want, says Aurthur.
“Forum users love to ask if our opinions are the formal opinions of The New York Times,” she said. “No. The only official opinions are those that appear as unsigned editorials. Beyond that, it’s my personal opinion.”
But that said, Aurthur continues, “I am careful what I say on political topics because my opinion is completely irrelevant to my job. You can’t let your personal feelings intrude.”
That’s what happened when then-New York Times forum host Scott Armel-Funkhouser was drawn into a heated political fray in the days after Sept. 11. He ultimately decided to post an apology in which he assured the online community that his views were not necessarily representative of the newspaper.
“I let the issue at hand affect me too personally,” he wrote, “and I abandoned my professional role.”
“It’s really tough,” Armel-Funkhouser said. “The moderators are human, and we are all subject to our own biases. We have our inner allegiances and opinions regardless of how objective we try to be. It makes the moderator a tough position to play.”
In some ways, he said, being bound by objectivity reduces the effectiveness of moderators who have expertise in the topic of the forum and who, therefore, are well-positioned to stimulate conversation.
But while moderators realize they are “just forum hosts,” Armel-Funkhouser said readers “believe we are one homogenous mass, and they really identify us with the paper. People think the moderator is The New York Times. That’s at the root of why what I did was not good.”
In some ways, an online moderator may be the electronic equivalent of a traditional newspaper reporter – the political reporter, for example – who appears as a guest on a television or radio talk show. That reporter may easily be able to distinguish between discussing the topics of the day and delving into personal opinion: “The mayor was indicted for fraud,” for example, versus “The mayor has been a crook since his first day in office.”
But are the issues for the political reporters the same for columnists, who often do offer their opinions? Or for moderators of sports-related message boards, who may be less entrenched in neutrality? And what if the online moderator is not a traditionally trained journalist who presumably has developed an intuitive sense of appropriate speech? In some instances, such as at NYTimes.com, moderators are selected for their expertise on the subject of the forum rather than for traditional journalistic training.
Indeed, Armel-Funkhouser says, moderators need to be experts in the topics of their forums and in journalistic ethics.
“It all points to the importance of news organizations setting some guidelines,” said Steve Outing, senior editor at The Poynter Institute and an interactive media columnist for Editor & Publisher since 1995. “You throw a reporter into a discussion like that, and they have to know what the guidelines are.”
But as guidelines and policies are being considered, some new media observers point out, newspaper companies should realize that online message boards may attract an audience that is less grounded in the ethic of objectivity and neutrality valued by traditional journalists. As the washingtonpost.com’s Howerton suggests, that audience may purposefully choose to return to an online message board where a moderator contributes a humanizing element and a touch of personality that stimulates a sense of community among participants.
That notion of community is among the greatest potential assets for online message boards, especially as traditional journalists become aware that the online newspaper is different from the print counterpart, says the Christian Science Monitor’s Regan, who has long insisted that the newspaper metaphor has hampered development of the online arena.
“As long as we continue to use the newspaper to judge this new medium, it’s a bit of a fool’s errand,” he said. “The community forum will become valuable to news organizations as they realize that. And as this next generation comes along, for whom forums and chats and all those kinds of things have become familiar, you’ll see forums blossom in a way they haven’t before.”
Bonnie Bressers is an assistant professor of journalism at the A.Q. Miller School of Journalism and Mass Communications at Kansas State University.