The subjectivity (and danger) of online comments

This spring, The Gazette in Cedar Rapids revamped its policy for online comments. Should the Press Citizen and other local media outlets do the same?

The short list of the standards for having your comment appear on news stories at includes:

Be truthful.

Be civil.

Be responsible.

Own your words.

Leave the trolls alone.

Take commercial ads elsewhere.

Know that comments will be moderated.

“Comments that do not adhere to the Rules of Engagement will be removed.”

But should online comments even be censored?

What about in this case?: A PC story this week about a woman who stole money from a 6-year-old girl in an auto parts parking lot in Iowa City was straight-forward, but the comments were focused on race and poverty. And they were offensive.

Here are some of the comments:

We need more affordable housing in Iowa City so that the desperately poor like this women wouldn’t be forced to . . . what? She’s already living in a Section 8 apartment? Oh, never mind then. Hooray for diversity, I guess. The six year old probably had it coming.

Don’t call it a robbery, call it “surprise reparations.”

Why is the Press Citizen so racist?

Another one refers to racial elements of a mugshot included in the story:

The picture says it all…indeed, worth a thousand words. In this case, hopefully a thousand weeks in prison.

Still another comment:

20 years old and she has children? As is, plural? And then she steals from a child? Wow. Significant past history of assault, multiple previous theft charges, etc. Think her kids have a chance in life?

Are these comments civil? Are they offensive? Are they truthful? Responsible?

Oh, wait. Those are The Gazette guidelines, not the PC’s.

The Press Citizen states that users should follow this Guideline for comments:

“You share in the community, so please keep your comments smart and civil. Don’t attack other readers personally, and keep your language decent. Use the “Report Abuse” link if a comment violates these standards or our terms of service.”

So are the comments on this story about the 6-year-old “smart?” “Civil.” Do they not attack other readers personally (ie the woman who has been charged with this crime)? Is the language decent?

Somehow, a reader thought that the picture of a black woman explains something about this case and why she allegedly stole money. What does Section 8 housing have to do with anything? And what’s wrong with someone having children at 20?

Apparently the PC hasn’t a concern about these comments, even though I do. Maybe that’s evidence of the subjective nature of online comments and further evidence that comment guidelines are troublesome. At the very least, it’s evidence that such guidelines are more complex than one may think.

Part of the problem with guidelines for online comments is the subjective nature of the standards. What is civil? Civil to whom?

Would these comments appear on The Gazette site? Indeed, some of the stories that appear there have commenting features closed, like this one.

Should the Press Citizen do the same?

Does it matter that two media outlets in the same region treat news and commenting differently?

Does the public have an interest in keeping comments open to all types of discourse, even if it is offensive to some and dangerous to the perpetuation of stereotypes?