The editorial team behind Code Switch, NPR’s race and ethnicity blog, is refining its practices for moderating comments, adopting tools that provide new options for interacting with readers who post objectionable material.
The changes, in the works since last summer, help the team manage an area of NPR.org that draws among the highest levels of engagement from the network’s online audience. Its articles regularly attract hundreds of comments.
When Code Switch launched just over a year ago, the editors set out to foster a vigorous dialogue with readers, and their heavy involvement with comments has become one of the blog’s defining characteristics. The team has come under fire from some disgruntled readers, however, who took their complaints to CPB Ombudsman Joel Kaplan.
Discussions of race online can quickly veer into dangerous territory, as Matt Thompson, who oversees Code Switch among other specialized blogs on NPR.org, knows all too well. When he was deputy web editor at the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, “our approach was typically to close threads on race, ethnicity and culture, because there are a lot of things that folks feel comfortable saying or OK saying online that they probably would not say in an in-person conversation,” he said. “Pretty much automatically, stories about race had closed threads.”
Code Switch has taken the opposite tack, with its bloggers going out of their way to foster productive discussions. Its commenting policy, posted by lead blogger Gene Demby last May, prohibits four types of responses: those asking why an item is news; “get-off-my-lawn” dismissals of broad swaths of culture, such as hip-hop; ad hominem attacks on entire groups of people; and comments complaining of censorship or hidden moderator agendas.
Demby's rules supplement NPR’s site-wide guidelines, which stipulate that discussions should stay polite, obscenity-free and on topic. The team looked to Ta-Nehisi Coates’s blog on The Atlantic, which Coates moderates himself, as the gold standard for online discussions about race.
Coates writes long responses to commenters and is so generous with his time that he’s cultivated his audience into a community informally dubbed “The Horde.” While he is quick to delete posts he finds inappropriate, Coates develops relationships with his most thoughtful readers. He even helped a frequent commenter land a job blogging for The Atlantic.
Demby and other contributors say that thoughtful feedback from Code Switch readers helps influence their coverage. In addition to promoting comments to prominent spots at the top of comment sections and writing posts inspired by comments, bloggers have also invited readers to expand on their thoughts, turning them into full-fledged articles. In January, commenter Aboubacar Ndiaye elaborated on a comment about rent increases, contributing the article “8 Reasons Why the Rent Is Too Damn High.”
But the moderation policies also drew complaints from readers whose comments were deleted last summer when Code Switch’s editors found them objectionable. Their complaints were the basis of two columns by CPB’s Kaplan, who faulted the Code Switch team for failing to respond to both the blog’s readers and his inquiries.
Kaplan’s first column, published in January, relayed the account of Michael Camacho, a commenter who said he had been banned without explanation. Part of his deleted comment read, “Why does every race get a pass on being racist to white people?”
Camacho exchanged several emails with NPR’s Audience Services team, which eventually reinstated his commenting privileges. Kaplan concluded that “the site has made significant improvements about how it handles such comments,” though he added, “I found nothing out of bounds or profane about Mr. Camacho's comments even if I disagreed with them.”
Kaplan was more critical in his second column, published in April. Commenter Chris Vandenberg complained that a July 2013 post of his was deleted while reactions from other readers who had called him racist were allowed to stand. Vandenberg alleged that Code Switch’s decision to delete his comment but not its replies “was tantamount to defamation.”
In looking into Vandenberg’s complaint, Kaplan tried to reach the Code Switch team over the course of six weeks and failed to reach anyone.
“It would be nice if Code Switch would actually wake up and address Mr. Vandenberg's legitimate concerns,” Kaplan concluded.
Kaplan said he usually prefers to defer to NPR Ombudsman Edward Schumacher-Matos when fielding complaints about network content. But he stepped in after the commenters said they had contacted the NPR ombud but got no response. Schumacher-Matos, who leaves his term-limited position in August, has not written to date about Code Switch’s moderating policies.
Thompson said he didn't know that Kaplan’s office had been trying to contact Code Switch for the second report. “It seemed to me that the second post was about a similar problem as the first,” Thompson said. “It was a user who had been dissatisfied with the moderation experience before we improved the process.”
Kaplan told Current that he thought the moderation issue was worth revisiting in a second column because of Code Switch’s lack of communication with the offending commenter. “The problem was those people were still banned,” he said. “[Code Switch was] just giving them the death penalty for maybe stuff that was off-topic, as opposed to being incendiary or racist or something like that.”
A shortcoming of NPR’s moderation system for Code Switch was that it offered only two choices in managing objectionable comments, according to Thompson. They could either delete individual comments or ban the offending commenter. “There was a really blunt hammer,” he said.
Kaplan doesn’t object to Code Switch’s policy of deleting off-topic comments “as long as it’s spelled out in their system. . . . I would have a problem if they deleted them and then barred the people from commenting.”
Partly in response to such criticism from readers, Code Switch has worked to refine its moderation policy over the past year, said Thompson. One lesson taken from the complaints was the need to improve communication with commenters who run afoul of Code Switch’s guidelines.
Late last summer — and months before Kaplan took up the commenters’ complaints — Thompson simplified the staff’s approach to moderation and their handling of disputed comments. In addition, NPR commissioned web development company Mission Data to create tools for improved moderation; the contract was tailored exclusively to Code Switch's operations. The software allows Code Switch moderators to ban offending users for up to one week, rather than permanently, and notifies users of their suspended privileges. Code Switch began rolling out the new software this spring and reset all readers' commenting privileges.
The high volume of comments prohibits the team from explaining every deleted comment to contributors, Thompson said. He encourages commenters who feel they have been unfairly treated to email him and often reinstates comments after users have argued their case.
The blog has also begun regular live chats to discuss commenting with users. The first took place June 3.
Some challenges remain, including the dilemma at the crux of Vandenberg’s complaint: how to manage a thread of responses to an objectionable comment before moderators can delete the comment. Because comments appear instantly and readers may be replying to comments even as moderators are in the process of deleting them, editors lack a reliable way to keep threads on topic, Thompson said.
CPB's Kaplan endorsed the changes that Code Switch has made and plans to publish a follow-up report praising the new policies.
“A thoughtful conversation”
As Code Switch worked on problems in its commenting practices, NPR.org as a whole has been experimenting with new approaches. The network uses two outside moderation firms to try to keep comments civil. KeepCon uses automated moderation to search discussions for spam and foul language, while ICUC has humans review posts flagged by other users.
Some news organizations have opted to restrict or remove comments rather than police them. This year, Popular Science eliminated comments on its website, and the Chicago Sun-Times did so temporarily to deal with problematic commenters on crime stories. Others, including the Huffington Post and McClatchy-owned newspapers, now require commenters to register via a Facebook-verified account rather than post anonymously.
Thompson doesn’t want Code Switch to take that approach. “I think there’s great value in a really robust conversation, and a thoughtful conversation,” he said.
But, he added, “if I ever felt like the value to the public of having this forum was outweighed by the detriment of what it required, that we could serve the public more by expending the resources and the effort that we do on this discussion in other ways . . . then I would definitely argue for taking a different approach.”
Thompson is involved in crafting moderation policies for NPR’s newest blogs, the education-focused nprEd and a forthcoming blog on global health and development. But his most hands-on project will continue to be Code Switch, since, as he notes, discussions on race and ethnicity tend to incite the strongest passions among readers.
“This is not a solved problem, the fact that generally we find it difficult to discuss race, ethnicity and culture, and that the Internet can amplify those difficulties,” he said. “We have not figured that out yet. But we’re trying, and I think there’s real value in trying.”