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Web comments now prompt more complaints than stories, says editor

Andrew Harrod 1An editor says dealing with online reader comments is now one of the “most challenging” aspects of his journalists’ work after revealing they prompt more complaints to his newspaper than the stories.

Andrew Harrod, who edits the Barnsley Chronicle, says the highest percentage of complaints he receives now relate to people leaving comments on his paper’s social media channels, rather than the accuracy of stories.

Andrew, pictured, made the revelation in his paper’s annual report to the Independent Press Standards Organisation, which is filed by all of the press watchdog’s member publishers.

In the corresponding report by publishing giant Newsquest, it was revealed that Wrexham daily The Leader was referred to the Attorney General’s office for consideration of contempt prosecution after prejudicial comments were posted on a story about a crown court trial at Mold, although “speedy action” was taken to remove the comment and the AG agreed it was not appropriate to take any action against the “innocent publisher”.

Other disclosures in the reports, which have been published on the IPSO website, include:

  •  The Congleton Chronicle has launched a fact-checking service underneath readers’ letters which contain factual errors (see separate story here.)
  •  JPIMedia ran a training module with mental health charity Samaritans, which was mandatory for all staff, after one of its titles breached of the Editors’ Code of Practice when reporting on suicide.
  • The Guernsey Press revealed it occasionally sends flowers to readers who have raised valid complaints.
  • Reach plc said IPSO’s policy of requiring significant inaccuracies to be corrected promptly was putting pressure on editors to correct articles they did not believe should be corrected in order to avoid extra sanction.

In a section of his report outlining the family-owned Chronicle’s editorial standards, Andrew discussed the impact social media had had on his newsroom in recent years.

He wrote: “Dealing with social media – particularly users’ comments – has proved one of the most challenging aspects of the editorial department’s role in the last couple of years and this continued throughout 2018. Indeed, the highest percentage of complaints we receive actually relate to users’ comments rather than the accuracy of the story.

“Since last year’s report, we have also noticed a small but rising number of requests from people wanting to exercise their right to be forgotten and we now have a procedure in place to look at these requests regarding our online content.

“However, public understanding of this entire process is still quite limited and already so far, we have received some requests which have not, in our opinion, been justified and have, therefore, been rejected.”

In his report, Andrew also touched upon his policy with regards to using social media as a source for stories.

He wrote: “As with most media outlets, we use these extensive online connections to search out story ideas, follow up leads and make contact with people. However, we have a strict policy that we do not publish a story obtained from social media sources without first checking its accuracy and authenticity. We do no share/re-tweet posts where we are unable to confirm authenticity.

“When we follow up a story garnered from social media, our general procedure is to contact the original source and ask for their co-operation. If that is not possible, we will then take alternative steps to check accuracy. These steps might include directly contacting other people mentioned in the original post, for example.

“As in my last report in 2018, I can confirm that we still refuse to carry stories emanating from social media where we have not been able to confirm their accuracy. I believe this is the responsible stance to take and do not envisage this changing while I remain as editor.”

The annual reports for each member publisher are now available to read on IPSO’s website.

In an accompanying blog, IPSO standards officer Rosemary Douce wrote: “One of the main requirements of an annual statement is to address actions taken in response to upheld complaints to prevent the same issue occurring again. Some complaints raise serious concerns and it is important for IPSO to see evidence of publishers taking these seriously and endeavouring not to repeat them.

“For example, after a breach of the Code when reporting on suicide, JPIMedia held a briefing with local teams and developed a training module in association with the Samaritans which was mandatory for all staff. The Telegraph always produces a monthly bulletin for journalists and holds briefings with editorial staff, in order to identify errors and lessons to be learnt.

“It is always encouraging to see positive feedback about IPSO-run training sessions in the statements. Midland News Association ran some sessions last year and said they stimulated a lot of debate and were well received by those attending. Iliffe Media Group said the training they took part in was useful in reminding staff about IPSO’s pre-publication advice service.”


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  • September 24, 2019 at 3:32 pm

    Will paperboy be turning himself off too?
    He likes to comment and express a view – as do I occasionally – but there will always be idiots who overstep the mark and need moderating/deleting.
    This wouldn’t be such a big problem if there weren’t so few staff to police it. That is the crux of the problem. The BBC manages to monitor feedback very effectively… but they have proper staffing levels.

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  • September 24, 2019 at 4:17 pm

    Most local newspapers do not have comments sections anymore. The comments are mainly made on Facebook. Newspapers cannot control FB comments made on any other pages than their own (and most do quite a good job of this, given staffing levels) and, crucially, you cannot turn off comments on individual posts on FB. It would be really useful for us to be able to do so but FB don’t want to allow this function as it would drive down engagement. I think editors should be lobbying FB to change this, particularly with regard to posts about ongoing court cases.

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  • September 24, 2019 at 4:19 pm

    @regional I get the hypocrisy of adding this via a comment but HTFP is quite a nice community – but I bet if someone did a cost/benefit analysis of the number of hits (ad revenue) you pull in from web comments versus staff stress, legal problems, time and reputational loss they would soon be switched off on newspaper sites.

    Social media’s a bit different, can you actually turn Facebook comments off? I’m not so sure you can? But again, the actual number of clicks through to a story from Facebook – how much traffic does it bring in in the end run and is it worth it the hassle.

    Even the huge publishers run into trouble, however well resourced you are.

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  • September 24, 2019 at 4:46 pm

    Regional. The point is do they in themselves make enough money to merit the aggro?
    I entirely agree that current pathetic staffing levels on regional and weekly papers are dangerously low when it comes to policing trolls etc seeking their few seconds of “fame” with vile comments.
    It would interesting to know just how much financial damage might be done by switching off comments. I suspect not much, but bean counters would know more about this.

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  • September 25, 2019 at 11:49 am

    This problem has been with us ever since newspapers and magazines went online, and to date no one has found an effective solution that pleases everyone.
    If an organisation has insufficient staffing levels to monitor and moderate reader comments on a story, then the simple answer, as paperboy says, is to turn those comments off.
    A large regional publisher that I worked for decided to implement this policy a few years back, although FB comments were allowed to continue. Some years later that policy still seems to be in place.
    While it may not be the best solution, it seems to work, reducing pressure and giving fewer headaches for editorial staff.

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