Blogs » Your Advocate: an editor's blog » How should we moderate our online forums and blogs?


We're thrilled by how you've responded to the changes on our Web site. Our primary goal was to make it easier to engage you in the site. Thank you for how you've responded.
As we launch on this exciting experiment, we're turning to our recently formed in-house ethics board for guidance. (My Aug. 12 column on the ethics board is at the end of the post to avoid linking to our paid archives.)
At Tuesday's monthly meeting, we'll be discussing some proposed guidelines for moderating your content. Please let me know what you think:
We've taken the position that we want the online community to police itself. People using are the publishers of their own comments. As such, they're responsible legally and ethically for what they post.
We never edit comments. To do so would expose us to legal liability and require manpower beyond our resources. We step in only after our readers flag an objectionable post. These guidelines are designed to help us respond when readers flag a post.
By requiring registration and valid e-mail addresses, we think we'll filter out most of the bad actors on the site. Nonetheless, we know objectionable posts will appear occasionally. When that happens, we'll delete the comments as quickly as possible.
It's difficult to create a list of every possible objectionable comment. When in doubt, we'll delete the comment, but our aim is to encourage discussion, not censor it. We're still learning from the emerging medium and know any policies we create today may not fit tomorrow. We're proceeding in the spirit that we can learn from the people formerly known as the audience.
Some reasons why we might delete flagged comments:
-- Pornography.
-- Objectionable language (although we allow a little more leeway online where readers have a higher tolerance than in a family newspaper).
-- Unfair attacks on a business or individual. These can be tough judgment calls that may require some discussion by members of our ethics board.
-- Spam.
-- Racism.
-- Copyright infringement.
It's not a long list, but so far we haven't encountered any significant problems. Perhaps people in South Texas are more polite than in other parts of cyberspace. 
For more on the subject, this February 2006 article is in response to attacks that caused the Washington Post to temporarily shut down commenting on its site.
My Aug. 12 column:

New review board addresses ethics questions

Every day, journalists make a variety of ethical decisions. Some involve big questions that prompt much discussion: Is this photograph too sensational for the front page? Should we grant anonymity to a source who offers important information? How should we report on a star athlete kicked off the high school team for underage drinking?

We make many more decisions, though, almost routinely. Who should we call for a story? What stories deserve our attention? What part of the community should we be covering better? Daily deadlines force us to act quickly. When you start a new product from scratch every day, you don' t have the luxury of time.

That's why we've formed a new in-house ethics review board. This new group met recently for the first time at the Advocate and outlined our mission. Our statement is simple on the surface, but much more complex when you stop and think about it: to provide guidance to the newspaper on the ethical decisions we face every day.

Along with providing guidance internally, we want to be transparent with our readers about what we do and why. This philosophy of openness will build our credibility in an era when so many are turned off by the national media. We're proud to tell you the accountability and concern of your local newspaper is much greater than what you'll see on either Fox News or CNN.

In establishing this new board, we agreed upon the principles of the Society of Professional Journalists as our foundation. You may read the full SPJ's ethics statement online. The preamble bears repeating in full:

 "Members of the Society of Professional Journalists believe that public enlightenment is the forerunner of justice and the foundation of democracy. The duty of the journalist is to further those ends by seeking truth and providing a fair and comprehensive account of events and issues. Conscientious journalists from all media and specialties strive to serve the public with thoroughness and honesty. Professional integrity is the cornerstone of a journalist's credibility. Members of the Society share a dedication to ethical behavior and adopt this code to declare the Society's principles and standards of practice."

Here are the four cornerstones of the code:

Seek truth and report it.

Minimize harm.

Act independently.

Be accountable.

Our board, which will meet monthly, consists of various Advocate journalists, the newspaper's family ownership, and representatives of our other newspaper departments. Once we get more established, we may bring a couple of outside experts, such as a minister or priest, to offer a broader perspective.

We agreed our topic for next month's meeting should be our Web site and how we handle the citizen journalism we plan to encourage further with the upcoming redesign of

The Web presents exciting new ways to engage readers in the news and our democracy. Within the cornerstone of seeking truth and reporting it, two sections of the SPJ code seem particularly pertinent to this discussion:

"Support the open exchange of views, even views they find repugnant."

"Give voice to the voiceless; official and unofficial sources of information can be equally valid."

On the other hand, the anonymous nature of the Internet collides headlong with another aspect of seeking truth and reporting it:

"Identify sources whenever feasible. The public is entitled to as much information as possible on sources' reliability."

Newspapers are charting new territory in cyberspace. We'll find our way best by involving our readers in the discussion. We look forward to talking more.

 Chris Cobler is the editor of the Victoria Advocate. He may be reached at or at 361-574-1271.