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News websites battle online user vitriol

A glossary of words as well as an exercise related to this article are also published online.

Online user discussions are sometimes shut down.(Source: SME)

A glossary of words as well as an exercise related to this article are also published online.

THE SME daily and Aktuality.sk news websites chose not to open the user comment sections for several articles published in August, citing irrelevant, offensive and hateful remarks left on previous articles. For media outlets the world over, moderating and closing online user comment sections is nothing new, and some do not allow them at all.

“We have been approaching [user] discussions more carefully for several years,” Filip Struhárik, project manager of the Sme.sk website, told The Slovak Spectator.

He pointed to several developments in administering user discussions, like launching the Romovia.sme.sk website in spring 2013, which has no user comment sections under most of the stories. This was done in response to the daily’s experience with racist and xenophobic comments left under the articles, regardless of the topic. They gradually stopped allowing user comments under more articles that were likely to elicit heated, emotional responses, Struhárik explained.

Sme now publishes three types of articles: those that are open to public discussion; those where the discussion is moderated; and those for which the discussion is closed. When deciding whether to close an article’s user comment section, they consider several criteria, like the news value of the text, the readers’ interest in the issue, and whether they can control the submitted comments. An important factor is whether an article may spark heated emotions, the daily wrote on its blog, published in early August.

Aktuality.sk also pointed to emotionally charged user comments when explaining the reasons for closing discussion threads, especially under articles about Russia, Ukraine, Islam and the Roma.

“Hateful discussions between some people degrade the article, the topic, but also the event and the people who we were writing about,” the editorial team of the website explained.

Though some people may consider the practice of deleting comments to be an infringement of freedom of speech, this is actually not the case, the website stressed, adding it is “unacceptable [to allow] our discussions to become a place for communication of extremists or individuals who deliberately unleash hatred”.

Nothing new in the world

Sme has tried several methods of improving its user comment sections in recent years. For example, it introduced moderated discussions in December 2013, in which moderators review every submitted comment and publish only those that are relevant to the topic at hand.
The number of moderated texts is, however, limited, since “we do not have the capacities to monitor every discussion thread on our website”, Sme explained.

Moderated discussions are frequently used by international media. The New York Times, for example, only opens about 17 articles per day for comments. The stories are picked by a member of the community staff, who consults with the news desk that runs the home page about the articles that are likely to be published that day. He or she then decides which articles to open for comments. Moreover, the opinion department chooses a number of articles to open for discussion with the community team, the daily wrote in its blog in 2012.

“Generally, we consider four factors when deciding which articles should be available for comments: the news value of the story; the likelihood of reader interest in the story; whether we can moderate the likely number of comments in a timely fashion; and whether we have recently hosted comments about the issue in question,” the NY Times website reads.

The articles are often open for comments for 24 hours, but this can vary due to several factors. The daily can, for example, close threads when it feels that “the discussion has run its course and there is nothing substantial to gain from having more comments on the article”.

The community staff read all submitted comments, and the daily also limits the number of characters for the comments.

Their aim is to provide substantive commentary for the general readership.

“By screening submissions, we have created a space where readers can exchange intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information,” the NY Times wrote on its website.

The British BBC also moderates discussions on its website, explaining that many different issues they report on “generate a lot of passion”, adding that they have “a duty to provide an impartial and balanced output”.

The BBC has introduced two types of discussion moderation: fully moderated and reactively moderated. The former, also known as pre-moderation, means that every submitted comment has to be checked by a BBC moderator before it is published on the website.

The latter means that only comments by registered users will be published directly on the website. Those who are not registered, however, will first need approval by a BBC moderator. The BBC monitors the content of the discussions and removes comments that violate its house rules, the broadcaster explained on the webpage.

“We want to keep as many topics as possible in reactive moderation because it will allow many more people to contribute to the debates,” the BBC wrote. “But there are some that will have to remain fully moderated. We hope that over time you, our users, will help us inform those editorial decisions.”

Decency is important

Representatives of national dailies agree that it is important to have decent and quality discussions on the web, and therefore it is sometimes necessary to control and even intervene in the user discussion threads.

Nora Slišková, editor-in-chief of the Pravda daily, said that the readers are allowed to start discussions below every article published on their website. Any expressions of hate, rudeness, vulgarity or others that violate their moral standard are, however, unacceptable and the administrators will then either erase the comments or block the user, Slišková explained to The Slovak Spectator.

Ivana Špotáková from the communication department of the Ringier Axel Springer publishing house, whose flagship is the Nový Čas daily, also admits that they follow a moral standard and if this is violated, they have to intervene.

Struhárik notes that user discussions are a showcase for all media. According to him, when intervening in discussions, they also want to protect reporters, respondents and bloggers from “personal attacks by the anonymous crowd”. Moreover, not just the author, but also the media is responsible for the content of the user comments, he stressed.

“No media in the world has found a recipe to create a space for a sophisticated exchange of opinions on the web yet,” Sme wrote on its blog. “The internet discussions only remind us how much energy, patience and effort is necessary for us to listen to and respect each other.”

Culture Ministry criticises language in media

THE QUALITY of language used in media is unsatisfactory, the Culture Ministry wrote in its report on using the state language, which the government approved at its May 21 session. Since the media has a formative effect on people, especially the youth, the ministry has recommended several ways to improve the language quality in the media and proposes ways to encourage reporters to use the standardised form of Slovak.

The report showed that the Council for Broadcasting and Retransmission (RVR), a licensing and supervisory body for broadcasting media, received 21 motions pertaining to the language used in the media in 2012 and 2013, such as a lack of Slovak dubbing and subtitles or poor quality Slovak. It subsequently launched 11 proceedings, with seven broadcasters actually being punished for violating the law on state language. Six were notified of violating the law and one was fined.

Though the number of complaints pertaining to using the Slovak language was not as high as the number of other complaints, the RVR warned against “low culture of a word in broadcasting, grammar mistakes, mistakes in pronunciation, stylistic and other defects to whose elimination it is necessary to make a long-term effort that will be especially related to improving education throughout the network, from primary schools to special seminars for media professionals”.

The Culture Ministry therefore recommended improving the education of the Slovak language at universities focused on the media sphere (including journalism, marketing and media communication, and acting) and organising systematic language education for reporters, TV presenters and other media employees. It also proposed that reporters and TV presenters undergo so-called qualification tests, i.e. tests for reading, pronunciation, articulation and speech rate, before their first broadcasting.

The ministry also recommended creating a post of language reporters in broadcasting and print media, as well as the post of voice teachers for broadcasting media.

Moreover, it advised the public-service Radio and Television of Slovakia (RTVS) to create room for broadcasting programmes focused on standard Slovak language and language counselling.

The RTVS responded that it plans to launch a new educational cycle titled ‘Let’s not be afraid of the Slovak language’ that should be broadcast once a week. It should have 16 parts that would introduce Slovak language in real life, the broadcaster’s spokesperson Dominika Šulková told the SITA newswire back in May.

She added that they also monitor the ability of new reporters to work with the language. The broadcaster introduced regular trainings for RTVS reporters, including new ones that focus on phonetics, speech technique, stylistics and standard language, Šulková told SITA.


This article is published as part of Spectator College, a programme created by The Slovak Spectator with the support of Petit Academy Foundation and Orange Foundation

Topic: Spectator College


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