Are news outlets liable for reader comments?

By Christopher Corneschi

A man has his say. Source: Flickr/Paul Cross

Over the past few years, several news outlets have published many online comments left by readers and users that are considered to be offensive and inflammatory.

While yours truly believes in the power of free speech, I also believe there are limits to what we can say, out of respect for others and their own viewpoints.

Back in 2007, ABC’s Mediawatch highlighted the situation by airing several comments that were left on numerous News Limited websites, including the Daily Telegraph.

Here’s just one light example of the comments that were approved by the newspaper’s online team:

The Daily Telegraph, Readers' comments, 3rd May, 2007. Source: ABC

Charming, and yet that’s just one example of the sort of comments that were found on the website.

Several News Limited editors replied to the show with conflicting answers. A Herald Sun editor said it was policy for the site to remove offensive comments, but a Daily Telegraph editor said that to moderate discussion on their site was “censorship.”

Censorship? That’s rich. Almost every news site, along with other websites that offer some sort of reader comment, including blogs and forums, have policies in place that forbid derogatory comments regarding someone’s gender, race or sexual orientation (and so on.)

That was 2007, how about now? Have news sites stepped up in their game into stopping offensive comments from being published?

Herald Sun, Readers' comments, July 10 2007. Source: Pure Poison Blog

3AW, Readers' comments, July 2011. Source: Pure Poison Blog

More wonderful examples from the Herald Sun and 3AW, soon after Prime Minister Julia Gillard announced the carbon price in 2011.

I don’t mind reader comments on websites, as long as the comments are constructive and useful to the topic on hand, whether it is critical or complimentive. But publishing comments that call to assassinate or hang a democratically elected Prime Minister?! No matter what you think of Gillard, these comments are just plain offensive.

It is clear that four/five years after the original Mediawatch segment, news outlets have hardly done anything to stop these comments from being published.

Are news outlets liable for reader comments? I certainly think so, if that’s what the news outlets want their readership base to be full of people who should know better.

To finish off, here’s the Chaser on online comments. I could use a good laugh.