Globe & Mail Editors fielded questions from readers yesterday and answered this thorny question in an online Q&A discussion. Read the answer by clicking on the link below:
Robert Tombs, Ottawa: Why are the “comments” sections after articles so frequently disabled with The Globe saying: “Editor’s Note: We have closed comments on this story for legal reasons. We appreciate your understanding”? Is it because you are continually being threatened with lawsuits? Or because people are often libelous in their comments? If the latter, do you have the manpower to sift through every comment for a legal evaluation? Is it really necessary to disable the entire comments section rather than refuse to post selected comments?
Dr. John M. Clearwater, Ottawa: Why are almost all stories about Israeli military activities and Israeli actions in Palestine closed to comments?
Jim Sheppard: Mr. Tombs and Dr. Clearwater, you both ask good questions about those relatively rare occasions where we close comments on specific articles. There are certainly occasions where we close comments for legal reasons. Most of these relate to stories about arrests and trials. While there is some concern about potential libel, the bigger issue is contempt of court. This is oversimplifying a bit but Canadian law does not permit the media to print or broadcast in advance of a trial any details of the crime or of the alleged role of the people arrested that might prejudice potential jurors at a trial. All media organizations have developed detailed internal policies for such stories in traditional print or broadcast formats. For example, neither The Globe nor any other major newspaper would ever print a letter in advance of a trial allowing a reader to declare the person facing trial guilty of the offences with which he or she is charged, or revealing details of the crime. In most cases, those details are also under separate publication bans imposed by the courts. I can assure you that when a globeandmail.com editor slips and accidentally allows reader comments on such stories online, we are inundated with readers declaring the person on trial guilty before the first piece of evidence is heard and then suggesting that capital punishment is too good for the accused, long before he or she has been convicted. That’s simply illegal.
Mr. Tombs asks if we have the manpower to vet each comment and determine whether to publish it or not. Sadly, sir, we do not. Other media organizations which do require editor approval before comments are published hire dozens and dozens of staff members to do that. We simply don’t have those resources. Dr. Clearwater has touched on one of the most vexing issues for our readers. Previously, our policy on all Mideast stories was to close comments because of the massive volume of racist submissions urging violence against one side or another, and because of the manpower issues I cited earlier. For the past two months, with the introduction of our new look and our comment technology, we have been more flexible in that regard. Keep an eye on it.