Toward a more thoughtful conversation on stories

December 23, 2011 Leave a comment


I’ve become increasingly concerned about the quality of discourse in comments on news stories on Reuters.com and on other major news sites.  On some stories,  the “conversation”  has been little more than  partisans slinging invective at each other under  the cloak of anonymity.


I believe our time-challenged, professional readers want to see a more rewarding conversation—and my colleagues who lead Reuters.com are introducing a new process for comments that I believe will help bring that about.


The new process, which gives special status to readers whose comments have passed muster in the past, won’t address the anonymity issue, but I do think it is an important step toward a more civil and thoughtful conversation.


Let me introduce Richard Baum, Reuters Global Editor for Consumer Media, to tell you about the new process:


——————————————————————————————


Like many major news publishers, we’ve agonized over how to balance our enthusiasm for reader comments on stories with our belief that few people would benefit from a free-for-all. Most of our readers respect our request for comments that “advance the story,” by submitting relevant anecdotes, links and data or by challenging our reporting when they think we’ve fallen short of our editorial standards. It’s rewarding, sometimes even exhilarating, to see the way our audience builds on our coverage.


Where we struggle is with comments that we believe contribute nothing useful to the conversation. I’m not talking about obscenities and spam — we have software that aims to block the publication of those — but something more subjective. Most of our readers are business professionals who value their time highly. We believe they want comments that are as rewarding to read as they are to write. The challenge is how we deliver that experience in a way that doesn’t delay the publication of good comments nor use up resources that might be better deployed on other parts of the site.


I’ll explain how we’re tackling that shortly. But first, here are some examples of the type of comments that fall foul of our moderators:
– racism and other hate language that isn’t caught by our software filters
– obscene words with letters substituted to get around the software filters
– semi-literate spelling; we’re not looking for perfection, but people shouldn’t have to struggle to determine the meaning
– uncivil behavior towards other commentators; debate is welcome, schoolyard taunts are not
– incitement to violence
– comments that have nothing to do with the story
– comments that have been pasted across multiple stories
– comments that are unusually long, unless they’re very well written
– excessive use of capital letters


Some of the guidelines for our moderators are hard to define precisely. Mocking of public people can be fair sport, for example, but a moderator that has just approved 30 comments calling someone an idiot can rightly decide that there’s little incremental value in publishing the 31st. When we block comments of this nature, it’s because of issues of repetition, taste or legal risk, not political bias.


Until recently, our moderation process involved editors going through a basket of all incoming comments, publishing the ones that met our standards and blocking the others. (It’s a binary decision: we don’t have the resources to edit comments.)


This was unsatisfactory because it delayed the publication of good comments, especially overnight and at weekends when our staffing is lighter.


Our new process grants a kind of VIP status on people who have had comments approved previously. When you register to comment on Reuters.com, our moderation software tags you as a new user. Your comments go through the same moderation process as before, but every time we approve a comment, you score a point.


Once you’ve reached a certain number of points, you become a recognized user. Congratulations: your comments will be published instantly from now on. Our editors will still review your comments after they’ve been published and will remove them if they don’t meet our standards. When that happens, you’ll lose points. Lose enough points and you’ll revert to new user status.


The highest scoring commentators will be classified as expert users, earning additional privileges that we’ll implement in future. You can see approval statistics for each reader on public profile pages like this, accessed by clicking on the name next to a comment.


It’s not a perfect system, but we believe it’s a foundation for facilitating a civil and rewarding discussion that’s open to the widest range of people. Let me know what you think.

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What did you say your name was?

December 23, 2011 Leave a comment


I don’t mean to call out these particular commenters, and I’m happy to see our readers taking the time to engage in robust discussion on Reuters.com. But I’m beginning to think our discussion would be even more robust and insightful if those making comments signed their real names.


News organizations have grappled with how to handle reader comments practically since the dawn of online media. When I was at MSNBC.com in the 1990s we had message boards that at first were heavily monitored (at a fairly high cost) and then were largely unmonitored. By 1998, no matter what the purported subject of the board, the discussion would be taken over by frenzied postings on the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal.


Some organizations have taken a very laissez-faire approach to reader comments, allowing anything to be posted and taking down only the most egregiously offensive comments after the fact. Others have taken a much more labor-intensive–and expensive–approach, moderating all comments before they’re published. Some have banned anonymous comments. Most are somewhere in the middle.
I spoke with Reuters general manager for global consumer media, Keith McAllister, about the Reuters.com approach.


“We want our users to be as involved as possible in Reuters.com,” Keith said. “User comments, particularly, help us move stories beyond our own reporting and analysis to unpredictably interesting and valuable places. We learn from (users) and, we believe, (users) learn from each other.”


He added: “We are also zealous guardians of the quality of the Reuters.com community because so many of you rely on our site to be a place of serious and informed debate. That’s why we ask users to register to comment and why–in the near future–we’ll take the additional step of clearing each new user’s first comment.”


I think that’s a smart move that will make the debate in the comments sections even smarter. Still, I wonder if we should tackle the question of anonymity.


The Washington Post’s Gene Weingarten explored the subject of anonymous, vitriolic comments and asked in an online poll if readers who file comments should be required to identify themselves. As of this writing, about 46 percent say no and 41 percent say yes.


New technologies have offered more sophisticated and powerful monitoring and registration tools, but in the end it all comes down to how much news organizations are willing to spend and to whether we fundamentally believe that people should be allowed to comment anonymously or be required to identify themselves.


Print newspapers and magazines only publish signed letters to the editor and almost all verify the sender’s identity before publication. But again, this costs money and time.


Most news websites encourage comments and allow a great deal of freedom for commenters to say pretty much anything they want as long as it isn’t hate speech or obscene. The result is indeed a free-for-all of opinion, from right to left and, in some cases, well outside the generally accepted bounds of reality.


Isn’t this a good thing? the argument goes. Shouldn’t we encourage as much discussion as possible?


I’ve always thought so. But lately I wonder if the discussion is really serving the needs of our audience. As I read the comments on stories about the health care debate in the United States, so many seemed be little more than pre-cooked soundbites and talking points of the left and the right. There is little actual discussion as partisans on both sides fire salvos of invective at each other. And on stories that deal with Middle East, the divide is even more pronounced. Is this useful, or is it more like shouting at the television set–and just about as effective?


So what? I’ve been told. Is this really any different than Speaker’s Corner in London’s Hyde Park, where speakers can mount a soapbox and expound on pretty much anything they want to? Well, actually it is. In Hyde Park, you can see who’s doing the speaking.


Would the online debate among commenters be stifled by requiring commenters to sign their real names? I suspect some would be less likely to want to attach their names to their opinions and some would sign false names but I also believe we might get more thoughtful comments. And I believe commenters would be less likely to throw insults at an identifiable person than at an abstraction like johnny99gogo.


Of course, this may be an argument for the last century, anyway. Social media like Facebook and Twitter have changed the ways people share their thoughts with each other by promoting more selective communities. The comments section on stories and blogs may already be a dinosaur.


What do you think? Are there other ways to promote smarter, more civil discourse.


Chime in. But could you sign your real name?


Dean Wright
(formerly johnny99gogo)

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Categories: Uncategorized

Honoring Free Expression Online

December 23, 2011 Leave a comment


The awards–$10,000 each and divided into three categories: technology, policy and advocacy– were presented Thursday at the Global Voices Citizen Media Summit in Santiago, Chile.


Deliberations were difficult, as the standard of entries was high and the judges were impressed by the work being done by individuals and groups to deliver on the Internet’s promise: a medium that allows for freedom of expression and the free flow of information.


The winners were decided after several weeks of deliberation by the judging panel, which included myself, Robert Boorstin, Director of Public Policy at Google; Sheila Coronel, director of the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism at Columbia University; Rebecca MacKinnon, co-founder of Global Voices Online and Visiting Fellow at Princeton University’s Center for Information Technology; Edetaen Ojo, Chair of the International Freedom of Expression of Exchange and executive director of Media Rights Agenda in Nigeria; and Jose Roberto de Toledo, founder of the Brazilian Association for Investigative Journalism.


In the advocacy category, for “an activist or group that has used online tools to promote free expression or encourage political change,” the winner is the Zimbabwean online community Kubatana.net. Kubatana uses the Internet, email, SMS, blogs and print materials to disseminate information to the public and is a valuable resource for information on the country. Its website hosts debate, publishes official government and legislative rulings and has an extensive archive of human rights and civil reports.


The judges were impressed with the way Kubatana uses a mix of high-tech and low-tech to distribute information in and outside of Zimbabwe. Using internet and mobile technology, their e-mail and SMS alerts and website unite several hundred organizations.


The technology category, for an individual or group “that has created an important tool that enables free expression and expands access to information”, was won by BOSCO-Uganda, an organization based in Uganda and in the United States that started with the aim of establishing communication between displaced persons camps in northern Uganda, using a solar powered, long-range wireless computer network. The organization’s goal is to further provide information and communication technology solutions, such as web training and online collaboration, to enable peace building in rural communities in northern Uganda.


We were greatly impressed by the organization’s smart use of available technology, adapted to local conditions. This ingenious use of technology has allowed a significant engagement with the global community and has expanded access to information for people on the margins. BOSCO-Uganda was a true example of the potential the web has to create new and empowering forms of expression and communication.


The policy category, given to a “policy maker, government official or NGO leader who has made a notable contribution in the field,” was won by the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism, a non-profit media agency that has sought to promote values of investigative reporting in fostering good governance, freedom of expression and the right to information. Since its start in 1989, PCIJ has fearlessly reported on issues of corruption and malfeasance in government.


In a nation where journalism can be a dangerous profession, PCIJ provides much needed support–in funding, training and maintaining information databases. It is useful both for journalists in the Philippines and for Western journalists who need a view of the complicated information society there.


I hope this will be the first of many years in which Breaking Borders Awards honor those who are using the Internet to promote freedom of expression.

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One final point

December 23, 2011 Leave a comment


Some say journalism’s golden age has passed. But speaking as someone who has been at this for 38 years, I think we’re living in it.


The news cycle of the first three months of 2011 has clearly shown the value of having experienced journalists in place around the globe to tell the world’s stories and provide insight into how those stories affect the lives of our audience.


I’m humbled by the skill and courage our journalists have shown in reporting on the wars and revolutions in the Middle East and the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear crisis in Japan. Just this week, Sabah al-Bazee, a freelance Iraqi journalist who had worked for Reuters since 2004, was killed while reporting from Tikrit when gunmen attacked a government building.


I’m also proud that, at Reuters, we do our work in the open.


In 2009 we made the Reuters Handbook of Journalism available for free online. The handbook is the guidance Reuters journalists live by and we were proud to make it public.


As I wrote in 2009, we made the handbook public for three important reasons:


Transparency. At a time when public trust of the media is in short supply, it’s important that news consumers see the guidelines our journalists follow.


Service. Sure, anyone with an internet connection can be a publisher. But publishers have varying standards of truth, fairness and style. Our handbook is a great starting point for journalists and publishers as they build their own standards.


Geography. Reuters serves a global audience and or handbook recognizes the cultural and political differences that our journalists face in reporting for the world. This is a handbook not just for English-language journalists in the United States or the United Kingdom, but for wherever English is used.


The response was gratifying. I heard from journalists and journalism educators around the world who were grateful for free access to this resource. We also heard from people who pointed out occasional inconsistencies between the handbook guidance and the way we actually reported stories. And that’s great–because we believe in transparency.


Not all interactions have been so pleasant. Partisans on all sides of Middle East issues are particularly prone to alleging bias in our reporting—and I’ve long since lost hope of convincing them that journalists can indeed put aside their own viewpoints and even ethnic backgrounds and report a story fairly and completely. That’s what our journalists do every day.


I’ve also given up on looking for wisdom in the anonymous comments that we and most other news organizations allow on stories. There is some wisdom there, but it’s drowned out in a cacophony of vituperation and recycled partisan attacks. It’s great to have interaction with our customers and readers, but I’d really like to know you better—not just as Johnnycat99 or Teaweasel.


Technology has liberated us and presented new challenges. How can we be sure that images we gather through social media or from third parties are legitimate at a time when photo manipulation technology can make doctored photos virtually impossible to detect? We’ve even had isolated instances of our own journalists using such technology improperly, instances that have been dealt with swiftly and decisively.


And yet, as I said earlier, there is so much reason for optimism about journalism.


Journalists are better educated than ever, have more powerful tools for gathering and transmitting news than ever and, as we’re seeing this year, are having a greater impact than ever.


And judging from my contacts with the Reuters journalists who do the hard work of daily journalism, they’re less cynical and more idealistic than ever. So many have told me that they see themselves as evangelists of truth, of independent reporting and the free flow of information. For most, this is much more than a job. They believe, as do I, that the world would be a poorer, meaner place without their efforts.


I salute them and pray for them.

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What if the euro collapses?

December 23, 2011 Leave a comment


A closely-watched survey from Bank of America Merrill Lynch out on Tuesday showed a near 50-50 split among fund managers expecting a country possibly leaving the 17-member currency bloc.



And some of our participants at the Reuters Investment Summit last week put a high 70-75 percent chance of some countries leaving the euro zone next year.


Swiss wealth manager Sarasin reckons the impact will be a meteor striking the earth and offers following scenarios:



  • A run on the banks by savers keen to put their money into a core euro country would bring down the banking system of the departing country overnight.

  • Companies and private households would not have access to loans, nor would they be able access any more cash.

  • The state, which in this situation should support the banks, would be bankrupt as well. Financial markets would deny it access to funding.

  • The new currency, once it is introduced, would depreciate by between 30% and 50%, which would multiply the government’s debts.

  • The depreciation would lead to imported inflation and trigger trade union demand for compensation, setting off a hyperinflationary spiral.

  • The bankruptcies of banks in Southern Europe would bring about the downfall of their northern counterparts because the latter have lent them large sums of money in the belief that monetary union would last forever.

  • Anticipating an appreciation, huge capital flows would drive up the new Deutschemark. Many medium-size companies would become uncompetitive overnight.

“There are thousands of venues for how a meteor could approach earth and there are thousands of conceivable but unlikely scenarios how the euro could collapse which would substantially alter investors’ optimum positioning… Investors should know that there is no refuge from a euro collapse,” Sarasin’s chief economist Jan Poser says.


 

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WITNESS: An evening with Ratko Mladic

December 23, 2011 Leave a comment


I had asked the Bosnian Serb commander about the siege his forces had laid to the Muslim enclave of Srebrenica.  The massacre there, the worst of the many atrocities perpetrated against Bosnian Muslims by Mladic’s army, was still two years away but this was his way of demonstrating that there would be no escape for its inhabitants.


That gesture by Mladic, arrested in Serbia on Thursday after 16 years on the run from charges of genocide in the Bosnian war, spoke more about his ruthlessness and obsession than any of the words he uttered during an interview that lasted for more than two hours.


Mladic, a former Yugoslav Army officer, was a familiar face to reporters covering the war in Bosnia, but few journalists got to spend time with him.  I had the opportunity to pass an evening alone with him and a Reuters colleague from Belgrade at the Bosnian Serb headquarters in Pale, outside Sarajevo, in May 1993.


Arrogant and dismissive of the United Nations and the international mediators trying to end the war, Mladic was at the height of his powers.  Serb forces were in control of 70 percent of Bosnian territory, the capital Sarajevo was at the mercy of his heavy artillery, and Mladic was breathing fire.


The World Trade Center in New York had been bombed in February 1993 and, recalling that attack, Mladic threatened to bomb London and Washington if U.N. troops tried to intervene.  “One furious Serb can do a lot of damage with just one match,” he said matter-of-factly, almost slipping in the remark as an aside.


That threat –an indication of Mladic’s exaggerated sense of power as much as anything else – gave me my story for the day but what fascinated me far more was Mladic the man.  Over the course of our discussion, his mood shifted back and forth from angry, belligerent and animated to humorous, charming and pensive.


We sat across a long table trading cigarettes and sipping plum brandy.  Whenever he got excited, Mladic would stand and strut around the room.  At one point, to illustrate his insistence that he really did not like weapons, he strode over to me, un-zippered his camouflage coat and slapped his hips, inviting me to see for myself that he was not armed.


A LONELY CHILDHOOD


He had really wanted to be a surgeon, not a military officer, he declared, and he would have made a super surgeon “but I’d never make a Frank Sinatra because I don’t have a super voice.”


As the formality of our exchanges about military and diplomatic developments wore off, we got to talking about Mladic’s childhood.


Mladic ‘s father was killed in 1945 leading an attack by Josip Broz Tito’s partisans against the home village of Ante Pavelic, the World War Two leader of the Croatian Ustasha fascist state.  Mladic was two at the time and his widowed mother later sent him off to boarding school in Belgrade.


As he reminisced, it became clear that Mladic was obsessively devoted to the women blood relatives in his life.  He kept returning our conversation to his mother, his sister and his daughter Ana, a medical student in Belgrade.  I cannot recall him talking about his son, Darko, or his wife, Bosiljka.


Ana would kill herself the following year with her father’s favorite pistol.  Reports at the time said she could not come to terms with evidence that he was a butcher.


I left our meeting convinced I had met a psychopath, a man without a conscience but a charmer as long as you stayed on the right side of him.


We ran into each other several more times over the course of 1993.  On each occasion, Mladic would throw me a wave or shake my hand.  Then, the final time we met, in August that year, he winked at me with a big grin on his face, as if to let me in on the joke he had decided to play on the United Nations.


Mladic had just completed the encirclement of Sarajevo with the capture of the Muslim-led Bosnian army’s only supply route into the capital. This was his chance to show off his conquests to the commander of U.N. Forces, Belgian General Francis Briquemont.


Briquemont had to ride up Mount Bjelasnica in an armored car to survey the scene.  Mladic stood at the summit, binoculars around his neck and a Gazelle helicopter in the background to drive home his point that a U.N. no-fly ban was not worth the paper it was written on.  Briquemont was not amused.  Mladic, typically, did not care.


Photo: Former Bosnian Serb army commander and top war crimes fugitive Ratko Mladic is seen on Mountain Vlasic in this April 1995 file photo. REUTERS/Ranko Cukovic/Files

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Egypt’s Christian minority wary of too much foreign support

December 23, 2011 Leave a comment


The Arab Spring has increased pressure on Egypt’s Coptic Christians, with attacks on churches and bloody clashes with Muslims and the military. Many foreign Christians feel driven to help. Pope Benedict, Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill, Anglican Archbishop Rowan Williams and other church leaders have spoken out in defence of the Copts, indigenous Christians who make up 10 percent of Egypt’s mostly Muslim population of 80 million.



In Europe and North America, governments have denounced the violence and called on Egypt’s armed forces to guarantee equal rights for all citizens, especially religious minorities. Church groups have collected funds to send to Egyptian parishes.


Worried Christians in Egypt say attacks on them have multiplied in recent years, starting even before former President Hosni Mubarak – seen as a defender of their rights – was swept from power in February by the Tahrir Square protests. But they are wary about getting too much support from abroad, fearing a backlash from Muslims who could resent special attention to a minority at a time when all Egyptians are suffering economic hardship and political uncertainty.


“We’re not afraid of anybody. We don’t want help from anyone,” Rev. Antonius Michael declared as he handed out blessed bread after Mass in a Coptic Orthodox church in Old Cairo.


“It’s not to our benefit to have loud voices overseas talking about Christians,” said Ramez Atallah, general secretary of the Bible Society of Egypt. “It’s a great benefit to us to have loud voices abroad talking about a more universal bill of rights for all Egyptians.”


Read the full analysis here.



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