Censoring & Incivility: The Photo News and comment blocking.
For those living in Monroe, checking the mailbox every Friday has become a ritual occurrence to get their copy of The Photo News. It’s what barely passes for journalistic integrity in the region, and the news coverage by the local division of Straus News has been lacking even by comparison to their other local weeklies. But those who only read the home delivered copy are seeing just a fraction of the full story.
For the remainder, one must go to their website (it’s not listed here to maintain some semblance of civility on our site that does not exist on the Straus publications, but you can find it in any Internet Search engine). The fun begins with coverage of local politics and reaches crescendo form at the responses to Letters to the Editor (LTTE’s).
Readers will see a varying graphic that outlines the publication’s commenting rules, apparently posted to provide a guideline for commenters to, among other things, avoid “rude or offensive postings”, “stick to the topic”, and not post “anything untruthful, offensive, or disparaging”. That is roughly where the enforcement and civility ends, and begins the sniping and offensive behavior that is permitted by the publication’s moderators.
For some time, The Photo News has declined in reporting and factual accuracy. Some recent examples of note include:
- The reporting of non-Kiryas Joel poll inspectors at Kiryas Joel voting locations was described by a reporter as a tense environment with several disagreements. Those working on the scene could not attest to any of the comments.
- Events involving Town of Monroe issues have deferred largely to press releases written by or quoting Town Supervisor Harley Doles rather than probing detail into the report or capturing more than a one-sided promotion.
- A patently false article, published as an LTTE, citing a new role for the town’s municipally owned theater as catering to “special-needs children”, something that has been rumor with neither merit nor confirmation.
Any remaining reporting, that term used generously, focuses more on scholastic events and pictures of team sports: in essence, any pictures seen as pulling the heartstrings of the community. Combined with advertising and a police blotter, the average issue comprises about 30+ pages of vapid journalism that has only become lazier as time has progressed. Unfortunately, that’s only the tip of the iceberg.
The paper’s moderation of comments runs constantly afoul of its own guidelines. During the past several months, valid and on-topic comments that have cited factual and credible data with contributor attribution (meaning, the commenter validated their identity through Disqus, their comment-management system) have been subjected to censoring (removed) without explanation. Meanwhile, off-color and off-topic comments with the sole purpose of discrediting specific individuals, or blatant rumor mongering without attribution (meaning, the commenter chose to remain “anonymous” or post without authentication) have been either removed or blocked from posting in the future, resulting in their future censorship.
The general method of “censoring” used by The Photo News isn’t the most logical. Rather than remove comments that are egregious, offensive, or disparaging, they’ve chosen to leave the comment section open to anonymous postings that violate any or all of those guidelines. Their method of choice is blocking the IP address of the user.
For the average user, it creates an inconvenience and deters them from posting or contributing. For the more technically savvy user, or anyone who has studied the Internet using a few Google searches, they’ll have easily determined limitless ways to circumvent the “IP blocking” or “brute-force” method. Free VPN services, IP-redirecting browsers, and several other legal methods can return them to commenting on The Photo News within mere minutes, subverting the original IP block enforced by the lazier method the publication has used.
But it begs the question for many: Disqus is already employed on millions of Websites across the globe. The ability to restrict postings to registered or ‘authenticated’ users requires no more than 2-3 settings to enable and would resolve the problem. Why does the Photo News continually allow offensive anonymous comments while censoring those attributable to actual and authenticated users?
Because it isn’t in the interest of the Photo News to alienate themselves from access to government news, as is the case with what is covered through most media outlets. And this is where they’ve gotten it completely wrong.
The current Monroe Town Board, led by Harley Doles, doesn’t have an unexpressed thought nor does it lack a press-release for any activity into which it ventures. That’s why you’ll never hear the Straus publication pick up on items such as the Town Supervisor’s illegal detention of a citizen under a weak premise of potential motor vehicle violations. Rather, they’ll leave that sort of scoop to the Times Herald Record who covered the story in full and got the details correct.
The Photo News would rather have a cozy relationship with their local government because they’ll get the first crack at any announcements (an argument that doesn’t do much for a weekly paper over one published daily) and they’d rather sit back and let the story land on their desk, pre-written, pre-printed, and ready for publication ‘as-is’. It requires less work, but it’s lazy journalism and hardly makes for newsworthy reading.
Further, The Photo News already knows who the identity of the anonymous commenters. Some of them are likely either members of the Monroe Government or those friendly to its agenda and tactics. After all, they know the IP address of those making the postings and have taken extraordinary measures to block them. Were they to block those of the Town Council or those friendly to the agenda, one call would result in that address being unblocked and the comments being permitted to continue.
The average citizen doesn’t have a true voice in their local paper, since the LTTEs are cherry-picked by the editorial staff, headed by Bob Quinn. But that’s nothing new to those living in Monroe, since they also have no voice in their town government. The Town Supervisor controls that agenda, and has demonstrated his willingness to censor anyone he believes has a view that would sway public opinion from his goals.
In short, Monroe lacks a voice…unless the Photo News and the Monroe Government agrees with the content of that voice. Ergo, your local example of censorship. Anyone else will be the subject of ridicule and slander by anonymous sources. Or at least until subpoenas are filed against the Photo News to divulge the individual IP addresses as part of larger investigations.
There are easier and more transparent ways of handling these:
- Implement Disqus authentication. Every commenter would need a Disqus account (of Facebook or Twitter) to post a comment, requiring them to provide some proof that they have a correct identity. The level of authentication could be decided proportionate to the egregious behavior of the commenters who continue to post with impunity.
- Remove commenting altogether. It’s a draconian solution, but it would stop the issue.
- Implement a system such as used by other publications, the Times Herald Record’s being a good example where such comments are on-topic and not a free-for-all.
It would be far easier than having to moderate continued comment SPAM and harassment using the paper’s resources, an area of law that still has a good deal of leeway in terms of how much liability to which the paper itself is subject. Disqus already solves the issue (note: this publication uses Disqus authentication with acknowledgments reviewed and required), and can be implemented in a way that maintains civility without censorship.
So we issue an open call to The Photo News in the form of an “opportunity for reform”: Follow an example of responsible journalism and Stop Censoring valid comments at the expense of those that clearly are offensive or violate your own guidelines. If the publisher of Straus News even want assistance in configuring their Disqus implementation to properly moderate users while avoiding censoring valid comments, we know several people who would be happy to help, and they’ll volunteer their time at no charge to the paper.
Monroe deserves to have a valid and responsible local news source that embodies the First Amendment premise of a free press. The Photo News isn’t perfect. Far from it. But free, fair, and open exchange of ideas and comments as cited in the paper’s own guidelines needs to be enforced. The consequences of that not happening would be unthinkable.
View this as an open challenge to improve. We’ll be watching. We’ll be monitoring your comments. We’ll be publicly documenting how fair you are or are not. You’ll be open to scrutiny. But make no mistake that we want accountability to the people, not a publication held hostage by those too afraid to ascribe their own names to their vitriolic statements.