The comments dilemma: Do comments and death always lead to the same result?

Here’s a tweet posted by the excellent Marin Belam on Twitter at the weekend, after reading some of comments posted on the Guardian’s story on the death of Whitney Houston:

His point was brought home with some force today when I was reading comments placed under Roy Greenslade’s post on the death of James Whitaker, the Mirror’s former royal editor.

Greenslade’s post is affectionate tribute to someone he clearly considered to be a friend and someone who had a lot of professional respect for. And the comments include posts from others who want to remember Whitaker fondly.

Yet there are many other comments which fall close to being spiteful and unpleasant, which were subsequently removed. The danger, as any moderator or community manager will tell you, of removing comments is that it can often just stir up someone to post again, only more angrily.

This proved to be the case for the Guardian, and their comments were subsequently removed. There are more comments complaining about censorship.

Which brings me to the point of the post: Does allowing comments on stories relating to the death of someone always lead to the same result?

We live in an age where reactive moderation is seen as the most legally-safe process for publishers to operate. It’s counter-intuitive to many, but that’s where we are.

The Guardian has probably made a bit of a rod for its own back with previous claims such as ‘The platform is ours, but the conversation belongs to everybody’ (duly quoted today by one angry commenter) but to me, as soon as offensive comments appear on a tribute or obituary, you have no choice but to moderate on grounds of taste and decency.

I know of regional newspaper websites which have faced similar problems, both on their own website and on their Facebook pages. In one case, reporters were horrified to see the first comment on a tribute to a teenager killed in an awful accident was from someone commenting on how big her breasts were.

Likewise, I’ve seen Facebook comments from people under stories about deaths with comments like ‘sounds like he had it coming.’ The fact it was on Facebook dispels the myth that you crack the problem of managing a community when you outlaw anonymity.

Last year, I blogged on whether, in hindsight, allowing comments at all was just a hiding to nothing?

I imagine when Greenslade opened up the comments on his tribute to Whitaker, he was anticipating more tributes, not criticism of the subject of his tribute. He/The Guardian was right to remove the offensive ones.

Is it too much to expect that those commenting on our sites adhere to the same rules of taste and decency which the journalists working on those sites have to? Again, I find myself asking if allowing comments under stories just leads to more problems to clear up than benefits they create.


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