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Create a Comments Policy for Your Media Website

Decide on Your Rules and Prepare to Back Them Up

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For media outlets, one of the most valuable features of their website is the viewer comments area. You can quickly take the pulse of your audience and tailor your content to what generates the most response. Those comments can quickly get out of control unless you set up a specific, public policy of what is and isn't allowed on your site.

Drawbacks of Allowing Comments

Despite all the benefits of allowing users to interact with you and with each other on your website, there are drawbacks. Profanity, personal attacks and spam are just a few of them. It is enough of a problem that TV station KSL in Salt Lake City, Utah, decided to disable its comments feature while it worked on a solution.

Set Your Policy

If you've decided that user comments are vital to your site, set up easy-to-follow rules so that everyone knows what is allowed. You will want to concentrate your policy in three areas:

Profanity: You instinctively know what crosses the line, but decide if you will allow common four-letter words that people say on TV. Some users may resort to innuendo to avoid posting a word you've outlawed. That can be just as offensive. For a media site, check your competitors to see if their comments are squeaky clean or are locker room material.

Personal Attacks: By allowing comments on controversial subjects, you'll get a lot of responses, but you will be amazed at the potential for them to turn ugly. These attacks take two forms -- those against you ("I can't believe your newspaper would publish such garbage!") and those that go after another poster ("Only a stupid feminist would think that!"). Many media sites will allow some leeway for attacks on themselves, because they're really no different than a "Letters to the Editor" section of a paper or magazine. Draw the line on comments that are personal. That could be a comment that a female TV news anchor is too old to be on TV or that another poster "must be on drugs" if she thinks tax reform will solve the country's problems.

Spam: Some comments are perfectly polite but are dangerous for a different reason. They contain outside links to products, unrelated material, pornography or computer viruses. Choose whether you'll allow any comment to contain a link. Some are harmless, like ones referring to a magazine article to back up the user's point about an issue. That's what makes it tricky if you think you want to ban all links.

Enforce Your Rules

Posting your policy is only part of the job. Next, you have to put on your police badge and become law enforcement. You can count on someone wanting to challenge your rules, either by posting a comment blasting you for not allowing free speech or by deliberately violating the policy to see what happens. Others will take note of whether you'll stand up to these cyberbullies.

Deleting a post is easy. But that gives the poster an opening to come back at you with something worse. Consider whether you'll block a user's ability to post comments, though by changing an online identity or switching computers, that person could launch a new attack against you.

The wild west nature of the Internet might lead you to throw up your hands, decide that comments are impossible to police and say that everyone's an adult and can get over any attacks. The danger in that is your media brand is linked to the content on your site.

While most people understand that you're not the one writing the comments, they may create a negative impression of you regardless. Like any aspect of the web, tools such as comment areas have the potential for both good and harm and must be managed to be beneficial.

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