The Robesonian, a Tuesday through Sunday newspaper in Lumberton, North Carolina, announced this week that it’s banning comments about race on stories that don’t have a racial element.
“We are not obligated to provide a forum for bigotry and hatred,” says Donnie Douglas, editor of the Heartland-owned paper. “This is something we have thought about for a while, but recently it’s become clear that we need to crack down. Unfortunately, we have a few people who comment regularly who turn everything into a racial issue. That just seems to create a feeding frenzy.”
Douglas told me over the phone this morning that he’s always approved comments before they’re posted, and was told by a press association lawyer to be “very liberal” about what comments are let on the site. Thus, he says, “I was very generous. I’m probably the one who let this get out of control.”
He never approved comments with the N word, but “if we posted a picture of two young blacks [arrested for a crime], you’d get the typical, ‘Surprise! surprise!’ comments, or ‘Where are your mothers?’” and those remarks would be approved for posting.
“We can have a story about anything, and it turns into a race issue.”
The editor adds: “What you have here is a tri-racial community [40% American Indian; 33% white; 24% black], you have an impoverished community, you have an uneducated community — you have a lot of things in a stew” that result in uncivil online discussions.
“It was a slow avalanche,” he says of the problem. Dealing with racial remarks — and whether to approve them or not — “became an increasing source of frustration for me.”
Douglas wrote on his Facebook page that the comments moderation job “gets a bit mind-numbing.” In our phone chat, he added: “I tell people that I get dumber every time I read our comments section.”
Reaction to the policy change, he says, has been “overwhelmingly positive.”