A simple request

Another one of those jour­nal­ism ethics sit­u­a­tions cropped up today. An employee of a local busi­nesses asked us to remove com­ments from a story on the Chronicle web­site because they were, the employee said, incorrect.

The Context

On Sunday, I pub­lished my sec­ond story about Montana Opticom’s $64 mil­lion stim­u­lus award to bury fiber-optic cable in Gallatin County. Many local com­pa­nies ques­tioned the government’s deci­sion to award the money, enough that it prompted a follow-up story.

Beneath that story, two com­menters posted com­ments crit­i­cal of one of the com­pa­nies men­tioned in the arti­cle. I’m not going to tell you which one. You can fig­ure that out for your­self if you really want to, and besides, the company’s name is not really impor­tant to the eth­i­cal issues at hand.

One of the com­menters was angry with the ser­vice he was receiv­ing from the com­pany, say­ing that it was the only com­pany he had avail­able in his area. The other com­menter posted details of the broad­band plans avail­able to him through the company.

The Request

This morn­ing, I watched two “report as abuse” e-mails come into my e-mail inbox, flag­ging both of these com­ments as “abuse.” By the e-mail address, I could tell that the per­son doing the flag­ging was an employee of the company.

Sure enough, a few min­utes later I received an e-mail from the same per­son ask­ing me to remove the com­ments because they were incorrect.

To pro­vide some more con­text, I must in fair­ness say that we had, on a past story, removed a com­ment at the company’s request because it was, a dif­fer­ent employee of the com­pany said, incorrect.

In ret­ro­spect, that was the wrong thing to do.

After some con­sid­er­a­tion and some con­sul­ta­tion with Managing Editor Nick Ehli, we deter­mined that it was best not to remove the com­ments at this time.

Judging by the word­ing of the e-mail and the fact that it included my pre­vi­ous e-mail con­ver­sa­tions about the first take­down, it was clear that the employee saw these two com­ments as an exten­sion of the ear­lier situation.

There are 2 com­ments on the “Money well spent?” arti­cle that need to be removed as well.

The idea that these new com­ments would be un-published seemed rou­tine, a mat­ter of course.

It wasn’t.

Removing one com­ment at the request of a busi­ness named in the com­ment did not seem like a large issue at the time, but as we learned this morn­ing, it opened a door that should have been left shut.

The Rationale

The Chronicle has, since it started allow­ing read­ers to com­ment on online sto­ries, been con­cerned with the law behind it. Some edi­tors of news­pa­per web­sites worry that the paper can become liable for comments.

This isn’t true. The video below explains it pretty well.

The crux lies in the Communications Decency Act, specif­i­cally Section 230c, “Protection of Good Samaritan Blocking and Screening of Offensive Content.” That part of the law says:

No provider or user of an inter­ac­tive com­puter ser­vice shall be treated as the pub­lisher or speaker of any infor­ma­tion pro­vided by another infor­ma­tion con­tent provider.

In other words, web­sites are not liable for mate­r­ial posted there by oth­ers. The orig­i­nal poster may be liable, but not the owner of the website.

So much for the law, how about our Terms of Service? Let’s get this straight first:

The Websites reserve the right to sus­pend or ter­mi­nate your access to and use of The Websites if, in our view, your con­duct fails to meet any of the fol­low­ing guide­lines or for any rea­son what­so­ever, within our com­plete and absolute discretion.

Got it?

Next, our terms say that “users shall not pro­vide any infor­ma­tion that is false, mis­lead­ing or inac­cu­rate.” Of course we don’t want false infor­ma­tion on the site, espe­cially if it is put there pur­pose­fully. And I’ll make it clear that I believe this par­tic­u­lar con­duct rule in our terms is talk­ing about pur­pose­ful fal­sity — lying.

How about our com­menters? Are they lying or are they just wrong? Is the Chronicle to take the word of a face­less e-mail mes­sage with a clear agenda over a face­less com­menter whose motives are unclear?

As David Ardia, a media law expert from Harvard University, explains in the video linked above, the Communications Decency Act and case law pro­vides some help. In numer­ous cases, Ardia says, courts have decided that a web­site pub­lisher has no oblig­a­tion to remove user-posted con­tent, event after the pub­lisher has been noti­fied that it may be defamatory.

“Courts don’t want to put you in the posi­tion of hav­ing to deter­mine whether some­thing is defam­a­tory or not,” Ardia says. “You’d be in a posi­tion as a web­site oper­a­tor to have to engage in fac­tual inves­ti­ga­tion after pub­li­ca­tion to deter­mine whether or not to remove material.”

That is to say, we can­not be expected to fact-check the con­tent users post to our web­site. It is not the Chronicle’s job to deter­mine whether a user is lying or whether he or she is sim­ply wrong or misinformed.

The Suggestion

My sug­ges­tion to the employee was to respond to the com­ments using our com­ment sys­tem to “set the record straight.” This is, per­haps, the best busi­ness prac­tice pos­si­ble in this sit­u­a­tion because it makes it clear that the busi­ness cares about its image and that it’s will­ing to talk with cus­tomers who are unhappy — rather than try to delete online post­ings that don’t paint a rosy picture.