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Public Editor Sylvia Stead responds to readers and gives a behind-the-scenes look

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Sylvia Stead is The Globe's first-ever public editor. (Peter Power/The Globe and Mail/Peter Power/The Globe and Mail)
Sylvia Stead is The Globe's first-ever public editor. (Peter Power/The Globe and Mail/Peter Power/The Globe and Mail)

From the public editor

Why not screen all comments before posting? Add to ...

It’s interesting to note which stories attract the most vitriolic comments. Anything political goes without saying. Sports the same. The reason why those two subjects attract a lot of attention (and more than their share of anger and passion) can be debated and defined by the psychologists, but since politics is a blood sport for some people, it shouldn’t be a surprise.

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There are some business stories that attract a fair degree of anger and outrage. Witness the recent comment thread about Canadian Pacific. Reporters Jacquie McNish and Brent Jang wrote in Monday’s paper and online that Hunter Harrison is so convinced he will be driving a turnaround at CP Rail, he invested $5-million in shares.

The comments quickly turned against the principals in the story. Jacquie McNish jumped in under her real name and said that despite the smart and insightful comments by many, “there are also a large number of comments that anonymously attack and degrade some of the people involved in this story. This demeans the important issues at stake here and The Globe will delete hateful or personal attacks.”

It’s helpful when one of the writers jumps into the fray to turn the conversation back to a more civil footing.

Still other conversations can’t be saved. Two recent examples focused on aboriginal Canadians. One explained how a small band in Saskatchewan was having trouble attracting more experienced and therefore more expensive teachers. Many comments were equally nasty about aboriginals and teachers.

Then there was a story Monday about B.C. native leaders asking China to raise human rights issues with Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who is currently visiting the Asian country.

I’ve heard from readers who say: Well why don’t you just moderate everything and control what is posted?

That has not been the policy of the organization. The policy since we started accepting comments on stories back in 2005 has been to keep them open by default, with a goal of fostering the broadest possible national debate. We receive hundreds of thousands of comments each month, and close them only for legal reasons or when the comments on a single story feature too many violations of our posted guidelines.

We let our readers focus attention on the better comments through a voting tool that moves the highest-rated to the top of the page and puts the lowest-rated at the bottom. Readers can also report abusive or offensive comments for review by our moderators to determine if they violate our guidelines.

We don’t like to close comments on stories referring to different groups in society - something we did more frequently several years ago - but perhaps we need to take a harder look at doing that more quickly in cases where comments rapidly become abusive or offensive to the majority of our readers who want to have a civilized debate on the issues raised by those stories.

The person looking into this issue and many others dealing with our readers is Jennifer MacMillan who was recently promoted to senior communities editor. We also have three community editors working in distinct sections to strengthen The Globe's engagement with its readers - Chris Hannay (News), Dianne Nice (Business) and Amberly McAteer (Features). Jen’s mission is to promote innovative ways of involving readers in our journalism, along with Craig Saila, our director of digital media.

If you have any questions about this or anything else about The Globe and Mail, please email me at publiceditor@globeandmail.com

Follow on Twitter: @SylviaStead

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