Blogs » Your Advocate: an editor's blog » What is a personal attack?


It sounds like a simple question. But moderating an online forum is anything but simple. During a heated local election, the challenge is even more difficult.

If an anonymous poster debates the point made by a previous anonymous poster and then adds an insult at the end of the remark, is that a personal attack? And how slighted should an anonymous poster feel about being insulted? What if an anonymous poster contends the personal attack he or she is posting is true?

Generally, we're able to sort through these questions when moderating our online forums. In a previous post, I outlined our ethics board's philosophy of encouraging the online community to police itself. In the digital age, a newspaper editor is no longer the gatekeeper of information.

Even still, we think we have a role in promoting a responsible conversation. Each time people post, they are reminded of the basic rules of the road, which include no personal attacks. By requiring registration, we weed out most of the bad actors and generally see a constructive community conversation occur on our Web site. Regularly, we get involved by posting our own comments or occasionally warning a repeat offender. We have even banned at least one chronic violator of our policies.

The violations increased significantly during the school board race between incumbent Tami Keeling and Dr. Charlie Jaynes. That's a pity because they both are fine people running to volunteer their service for the community. I'll never understand how ugly such local races can become.

Only a few so-called supporters of both candidates have been guilty of the attacks. Generally speaking, people running for public office should be fair game for legitimate criticism. Unfortunately, some have gone well beyond what reasonable people would consider legitimate.

A couple of reasonable readers asked our ethics board to reconsider our policy of allowing comments to be posted live to our site. During our monthly meeting this week, ethics board members discussed the proposal, but couldn't see any way pre-publication moderation would work. Posts might not appear for hours if they had to be approved by someone screening them first.

We'll keep evaluating how best to moderate our site -- actually, I like to think of it as your site -- and encourage your participation. Perhaps we'll be able to develop other safeguards. Many sites continue to wrestle with these questions, as you can see from this Online Journalism Review post. I see journalists as the right people to engage the audience in a positive way, as this Online Journalism article outlines.

What are your suggestions for preventing personal attacks on candidates, their families or others? Rumors, innuendo and hateful gossip existed long before the Internet, of course. Are we fighting a losing battle to keep it off our site?

I hope not. The community conversation is too valuable.