National Press Club

Panelists Describe Down Side to Unfettered Comments on Papers' Web Sites

March 30, 2009 | By Gil Klein

Grand Rapids Release

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. – News organizations encourage readers and viewers to comment on stories as a way to allow them to participate in the news. But some of those comments create dilemmas for editors, leading Grand Rapids journalists told an NPC forum Thursday.

“There are comments on our site that make my skin crawl,” said Tim Geraghty, vice president and news director of WZZM-13. “But we believe we cannot be advocates of the First Amendment and yet stifle free speech.”

He said certain things are taken off – racist comments, expletives, identifying a juvenile involved in a crime. But Geraghty said he believes he has to allow a lot of derogatory and misleading comments to stand.

“We work hard to get the public engaged in the web site,” said Meegan Holland, editor of MLive.com, the Grand Rapids Press Web site. “One way we do that is to allow comments on our stories. I will say I wish I could ban the word idiot from our web site. It is there a lot.”

She said readers who comment often hide behind pseudonyms and say things they would never say in person.

“We have people who agree to sit down and talk with us and to put their picture on the Web, and then people will start commenting on their physical appearance,” she said. “You never know what track those comments will take.”

Geraghty and Holland were speaking at one of the Club’s forums on “The First Amendment, Freedom of the Press and the Future of Journalism” the Club is holding around the country to mark our 100th anniversary. At each forum, the Club assembles a panel of leading local journalists to talk about where the news business is going and how to protect its core values.

This forum was held at the Gerald Ford Museum, which sponsored the event. As one of the few presidents who actually liked reporters, Ford had spoken at the Club at least 17 times, and the Club was pleased to respond to the museum’s invitation.

Richard Ryan, the 2001 Club president who covered Washington for nearly 40 years for the Detroit News, spoke about Ford’s relationship with the Club and with the news media.

Engaging viewers has become a hallmark of journalism as news organizations contend with new technology and diminishing readers and audiences for newspapers and standard television broadcasts.

Suzanne Geha, an anchor at WOOD-TV 8, who was in the audience, raised the issue of tasteless and distorted comments posted to news stories. She said they detract from the real journalism reporters are trying to produce.

“There is such a distortion and obscuring of the facts in all of the comments,” she said. “They are throwing things out there that are so far from the truth … It can be so vitriolic, so venomous because they don’t really have to identify themselves. They use code names. They say such things they would never say to the person or if they had to sign it.”

On other issues:
Paul Schutt, publisher of the Issue Media Group, said he is able to make money with an online news service that that focuses entirely on business investment in the region. He said the site is funded by sponsors who want to encourage news about new enterprises and business expansion that the mainstream press often overlooks.

“If your company gains 10 employees, we will write about you,” he said. “If you lose 10 employees, we are not going to write about you.”

Asked if that is not just advocacy, he said, “If we cover the negative side, it is a very crowded space. People want to know where the growth is. That is the niche we have chosen. If you are coming to us to get all of your news, you’re coming to the wrong place.”

Just days before the forum, Booth Newspapers, which owns the Grand Rapids Press, announced it was closing the Ann Arbor (Mich.) News and opening AnnArbor.com, a Web-driven news site that would publish a printed edition only two days a week.

Situated in the upscale, highly educated and transient University of Michigan market, the Ann Arbor News had to compete with the Detroit newspapers and even the New York Times for readers, Holland said. It was attracting most of its readers online.

“It is a fabulous Web market,” she said. “In that case, it made a whole lot of sense to go to AnnArbor.com and try to build something new and figure out what’s the new model for this. Let’s try something different. In that sense, it’s very exciting.”

Details and highlights of these forums can be found at www.press.org/juncture