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.