As the swine-flu crisis worsens, do the editors of the San Diego Union-Tribune's website have an increased responsibility to ensure readers don't worsen the problem by posting potentially dangerous misinformation online?Like a lot of news sites where readers can post their thoughts about articles, the U-T's website, SignOnSanDiego.com, has community-forum sections that run the gamut between reasoned commentary and extremist doggerel. One reader will suggest a national ID system to stem illegal immigration. Another suggests seeding the borderlands with claymore mines.
Robert Hawkins, SignOnSanDiego.com's morning news editor, says staffers do their best to delete offensive posts as quickly as possible. But the sheer volume of commentary means that haters will occasionally get their screeching 15 minutes of fame.
“Readers' comments are a mixed blessing,” he says. “It's a wonderful opportunity for people to share their opinions. But it's like democracy: Everybody moves in.”
But the test of any democracy is how it behaves when things go wrong.
Since reports of swine flu cases in San Diego and Imperial counties emerged last week, the U-T's reporters have acquitted themselves admirably, providing readers with important, accurate and non-sensationalized news about the crisis. Not so much the posters on SignOnSanDiego.com's community-forum sections, where a handful of jittery types have fallen over themselves spreading their strange theories about the outbreak.
Along with turning up the racial-insensitivity knob to 11 (a couple of writers referred to President Obama as “the ch!mp”), posters have suggested that swine flu can be caught by eating Mexican crops (it can't), claimed that the number of swine-flu-related deaths in Mexico was exaggerated as part of some nefarious real-estate scam and hinted that Obama was a carrier of the disease because of his recent trip to Mexico.
“I read a letter from a Mexican doctor who said that the situation is out of control and over 200 had died including vaccinated health care workers,” penned one poster.
Hawkins, remarkably candid about the inner politics of his own newsroom, says the tenor of the posts has increased debate among staffers over a possible policy change.
“Our policy is that readers can submit comments and it's instantly published—this was a decision that was made some time back, and it's always being revisited,” he says. “Some feel all the comments should be vetted before being published—I would like to see that. But that takes a lot of manpower.”
Hawkins adds that the timing of the ramped-up reader rhetoric is particularly unfortunate: The staffer whose job it is to screen posts happens to be out sick (no, not with the flu).
“Normally we'd have one person who devotes almost her entire time to scraping the scum off the bottom of the stories,” he says. “We do rely on readers, when they see things they don't like, to flag them. Whenever anyone has time here to go through the stories for comment, we go after the flagged items first.”