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News Media Walk Tightrope between Online Free Speech and Protecting Advertisers

Nearly every story on the Billings Gazette website includes a bar at the bottom where readers can post comments.

At least two stories, however, lack that bar.

Both of those stories are about Steve Zabawa, owner and co-founder of Rimrock Auto Group, which buys ads in the paper every week, according to the Gazette’s advertising department.

The stories document Zabawa’s failed 2014 effort to organize a petition to ban medical marijuana in the state of Montana.

Kyle Rickhoff, digital director of Billings Gazette Communications, said the newspaper removed the comment bars on those stories after the discussion “went off topic and was no longer discussing the medical marijuana issue.” He wouldn’t say what the discussion had turned to.

Rickhoff said advertising had nothing to do with the decision, while Billings Gazette Editor Darrell Ehrlick pointed to the paper’s general policy for commenters, which makes no mention of advertisers.

Zabawa launched a new anti-marijuana campaign in 2015. The comment sections on the most recent articles are enabled.

Media ethicists and editors of newspapers and television news programs all over the nation are struggling with comment bars, which often spur off-topic, inflammatory, ill-informed and even libelous reader comments. And that struggle can be even more difficult when advertisers are involved, testing the traditional wall between news and advertising.

The issue risks to become inflamed in rural areas, where the temptation to protect advertisers can be great, as they may be more difficult to replace if they choose to leave.

Is it wrong to shield advertisers from the barbarous area at the end of online news articles?

According to Kelly McBride, a media ethicist at the Poynter Institute—yes. She says free speech in online comment sections needs to be upheld.

“Comments are problematic, and they are also important for democracy,” McBride said. “Journalism exists to further civic engagement, and when you don’t allow the public to engage around your content, you push them away and they will go somewhere else to engage.”

This is true even in rural states like Montana in the digital era. People now have options—if newspapers police comments, readers can flock to social media websites like Facebook and Twitter or the sites of other news organizations.

Rickhoff said the Billings Gazette’s comment policy is to “let it fly, and then if someone thinks something is inappropriate they will flag it to us.” The newspaper does all their monitoring in-house, while many outlets have at least some done through a third party.

“If the entire thread is shifting into a section which we don’t want, we sort of remove that entire discussion,” Rickhoff said. He said the Gazette removes comment bars less than a dozen times a year. However, he could not point to any stories, aside from the two about Zabawa, where comment bars were removed. Ehrlick also declined to point out any additional stories where comments had been disabled, but said it happened only rarely.

The paper has written several other stories about Zabawa that focus on his business interests. Those stories include comment bars.

Several Montana news outlets are struggling with the Wild West of online comments.

Kellyn Brown, editor-in-chief of the Flathead Beacon in Kalispell, said comments can be problematic at a small news organization.

Brown said his newspaper contracts with a third-party company to monitor comments. Part of this filtering includes establishing a database of words that are often associated with racist, sexist or otherwise inflammatory remarks, Brown said. The company automatically flags comments containing those terms to make sure they do not go live on the website.

Brown said the Flathead Beacon has never had an issue with commenters defaming their advertisers online, but if it did, the paper might consider taking those comments down. He said the paper’s policy has been to let readers deal with issues with local businesses on their own, because claims made on the website are difficult for the paper to confirm.

NBC Montana uses Facebook Comments Plugin to monitor comments, according to digital manager William Miller. That helps, but the recent plague has come from memes that can’t be picked up by the text monitoring software, he said.

Miller said the station’s comment policy is simple: don’t attack other readers personally and be civil. He said he would consider taking down comments that attacked advertisers, though he also said that has never happened.

It turns out that news organizations face little to no legal risk for what appears in their comments section, including potentially slanderous or libelous statements.

Lee Banville, a media law professor at the University of Montana School of Journalism, said news organizations are protected from responsibility for what others publish on their site. The Communications Decency Act of 1996 exonerates news sites from all the indecent comments readers may post.

“The same laws that help the critical reviewers out there are the laws that help the trolls,” Banville said. “This is the American take on free speech. More is better than less. More means a little bit of anarchy, and sometimes a lot of anarchy when it comes to what is being said.”

Banville also said news organizations that police comments are more liable than ones that leave them all up, because it shows they are monitoring comments for content. If an organization that has a history of taking down comments leaves something up on their site, it appears they have deemed it appropriate. If that comment were libelous, the paper would have a higher risk of getting into legal trouble.

News organizations have reacted to this reality in a myriad of ways. Sites like CNN, Gawker and the Chicago Sun-Times have all drastically scaled back or halted comments altogether.

In 2013, the magazine Popular Science completely removed the comment bars on its website.

In an editorial from September of that year, the magazine’s online content director said “comments can be bad for science,” and cited a University of Wisconsin–Madison study that said readers exposed to negative comments ended up with a much more polarized view of the content found in the article.

“Even a fractious minority wields enough power to skew a reader’s perception of a story,” Suzanne Labarre said in the editorial.

But most media outlets don’t use such a radical solution.

The Billings Gazette, for one, merely closes comment bars on selected articles, including articles involving advertisers. This leads some to question the paper’s priorities.

“You don’t make news judgment based on who your advertisers are,” said Ed Kemmick, editor-in-chief of the Montana online news and commentary site Last Best News.

Kemmick, who used to work for the Gazette, stressed he had no specific knowledge of a policy or instance of comment policing since leaving the Gazette two years ago. In his opinion, newspapers should be upfront about what their comment policy is.

“It wouldn’t be so bad if they would come out and say it: Steve Zabawa is a valuable advertiser so we don’t want him publicly shamed,” Kemmick said.

Steve Zabawa, that valuable advertiser, said he had read negative comments about himself before on the Gazette website but had never asked to have them removed. He said he supports free speech and people’s right to comment whatever they please.

“That’s America,” he said.

Peregrine Frissell is a senior journalism student at the University of Montana and a native of Polson, Montana. He spent the summer of 2015 interning at the Nepali Times in Kathmandu, Nepal, reporting on earthquake recovery. Upon graduating he hopes to find work as an investigative journalist.

This article has been corrected.