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Editor column: Civility key to productive discussions at sltrib.com

Published April 19, 2014 7:13 pm

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2014, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Salt Lake Tribune Digital Director Kevin Winters Morriss took an unusual measure this past week.

In consultation with Editor and Publisher Terry Orme and myself, Morriss shut down comments on the first sltrib.com story about Megan Huntsman, the Utah woman alleged to have murdered six infants she gave birth to from 1996 to 2006.

The Tribune is committed to providing an open forum to readers who follow basic rules in commenting on stories at sltrib.com.

But some commenters so blatantly violated those rules of basic civility Monday that we had little choice other than to end the discussion for all commenters.

By 9 a.m. Monday, readers had flagged more than 350 comments on the story — and counting — as violating our rules. Some frequent commenters asked us to act, and we did — decisively.

We took the rare action seriously because our goal remains to encourage productive conversation on issues important to Utahns as well as those visiting sltrib.com from outside the state.

But we rely on commenters to follow our rules, which clearly state that "we will delete comments containing obscenities, personal attacks and inappropriate or offensive remarks."

In addition, "flagrant or repeat violators will be banned," according to our policy, which is spelled out in detail at http://www.sltrib.com/csp/cms/sites/sltrib/pages/aboutcomments.csp.

We're proponents of free speech and know enabling commenters to exercise that fundamental First Amendment right at times will mean some will say things many find objectionable or obnoxious. Far too often, comment threads devolve into attacks on religion or politics that have nothing to do with the stories to which they're attached.

Our goal is to encourage meaningful, on-topic discussion of issues our stories raise, and civility is key.

Morriss reviewed all flagged comments on Monday's Huntsman story and said he and others on his team deleted hundreds of them.

"It's not a step we ever want to take but we felt the debate had taken a turn that was in complete violation of our policy," Morriss said.

A number of commenters — either in the thread or in emails — approved of the action.

Kevin Legg lamented that even in a comment thread on a Monday blog post explaining why comments were shut down on the Huntsman story, his fellow commenters allowed the discussion to deteriorate into a debate over "left vs. right."

"I post under my name and I'd discuss my position on any subject of interest in person the same way I do in comments," Legg wrote. "The subject of dead children is neither right or left, it's wrong and sad. Dragging the comments into ideology does nothing to express the real gravity of the story as it relates to our humanity."

Hear, hear. Let's hope Morriss' action this past week remains a rare event.

Lisa Carricaburu is managing editor. Reach her at lisac@sltrib.com or on Twitter: @lcarricaburu.