The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation is temporarily suspending comments on its online stories about indigenous people, after its editors determined that too many comments were being posted that it deemed "off the mark" or "racist."
In an online note to readers, the CBC's acting director of digital news said that comments on those stories will be barred until editors can review moderation procedures.
"While there are a number of subjects and groups of people who seem to bring out higher-than-average numbers of worrisome comments, we find ourselves with a unique situation when it comes to indigenous-related stories," wrote Brodie Fenlon.
"We've noticed over many months that these stories draw a disproportionate number of comments that cross the line and violate our guidelines. Some of the violations are obvious, some not so obvious; some comments are clearly hateful and vitriolic, some are simply ignorant. And some appear to be hate disguised as ignorance (i.e., racist sentiments expressed in benign language)."
CBC uses third-party moderators to monitor comments. Still, Mr. Fenlon said in an interview, "We do see people who use language that, on the surface, if you're a moderator and you're not familiar with the story, it might not stand out to you as a racist comment, but in the context of the story it becomes obvious what it is, even though it's almost disguised."
As part of the review, Mr. Fenlon said, "indigenous and non-indigenous staff are going to look at the comments that … have caused concern, and say: 'What are the common things we're seeing? Could we provide some guidance for the moderators?'"
He added that the review, which he expects will wrap up early in the new year, may result in new practices such as moderators reading the stories or other background material.
Many outlets are struggling with the thorny issues associated with providing platforms for sometimes offensive speech. In September, the National Post forced all potential commenters to sign in through Facebook, in a move that editor-in-chief Anne Marie Owens said "forces more accountability by connecting online comments back to the individual's Facebook account." She explained: "We want to be the place to house intelligent, respectful debates on our online forums."
The Sun chain of newspapers, which is a corporate sibling of the Post, announced it would close the commenting system on its stories until it could figure out a better system.
The Globe and Mail asks its moderators to review all comments submitted on digital stories about indigenous issues – and a few other hot-button topics – before they are posted to ensure that they meet its stated guidelines. Jim Sheppard, executive editor of globeandmail.com, said Monday The Globe has not noticed any new volume or new problems with comments on articles about indigenous issues, and has no plans to change its existing policies.
Over the past year, CBC has been opening more of its stories to commenting. In a statement on its website, it says that, on average, "we publish 85 to 90 per cent of the comments that are submitted to CBC.ca." Still, it notes, "on stories that cover sensitive or highly controversial topics, the rejection rate can at times be 50 per cent or more submissions rejected."
Mr. Fenlon also said that CBC generally doesn't publish stories to Facebook – where it cannot moderate the comments – "if we think they're going to create a conversation in the Facebook space that's really off the mark, in terms of our preference for civil discourse." Still, he acknowledged that CBC has posted many indigenous news stories on that platform.
Moderation of comments on CBC.ca is done by ICUC, a Manitoba-based company that performs the same function for The Globe and Mail.
Mr. Fenlon rejected the suggestion that the suspension would lead to accusations of censorship.
"I'm not concerned, because we're not going to change our guidelines," he said. "You agree to certain limitations on free speech when you comment on these spaces, just as you do in general society. We have those rules in place – we just want to make sure they're working. The goal is actually to create a space where we can have all kinds of disparate views and debate and, even if it's pointed, we like that. We want really vigorous, healthy, oppositional debate. But it has to be within the guidelines of respect and not cross the line of hate."
The move comes amid attempts by CBC to expand its engagement with indigenous communities, which included the opening of a new aboriginal digital news unit in late 2013.
Mr. Fenlon noted that may have played a part in Monday's announcement. "There's perhaps a heightened awareness about what we're doing, how we're reporting on these communities, how these communities are engaging with us," he said.