How Should Newspapers Respond To Criticism On Their Facebook Page?

What would you do if someone came to your Facebook wall and started writing mean things about you or your work? You’d probably de-friend them, or at least delete the comments. But is that the way a news organization should respond? Does it matter that the industry is built on the very foundation of giving everyone a voice and space to share their opinions?

This question came up this week when the editor of the Hanford Sentinel posted this on the organization’s Facebook wall:

On the one hand, you can’t let commentors run amok dragging story subjects through the wringer in your story comments (on Facebook or your own site) and then take a different stance when the person in the wringer is your reporter or your organization’s coverage. On the other hand, if the commentary is not promoting constructive dialogue or contributing to the story, it’s potentially diminishing and distracting from it — and likely discouraging those who would otherwise come to your page as a source of news or intelligent conversation. Nobody wants to wade in those toxic waters, except trolls, who beget more trolls.

That said, news organizations drag public officials, accused criminals and others through the wringer daily. It’s their job, but as professionals they adhere to ethics, such as giving the subject a chance to respond and fairly representing varying sides of an issue. Your readers, viewers and Facebook fans don’t share the same fairness standards and don’t often think about the person behind the byline. But responding by deleting comments that don’t meet that threshold isn’t going to educate the posters on why their comment stepped out of bounds. When your work is on trial, even the thickest-skin person can feel defensive. Try not to be. Try to educate fans about how the story, editorial, photo, etc. came to be, and when they criticize your work, ask them what you could have done better. Maybe they just want to feel heard? Often just the act of engaging them is enough to make them think a little clearer, as some of the commentors (including the editor behind this facebook post) note at Romenesko, where I saw the post originally.

That said, it’s not really censorship to remove inflammatory comments designed to elicit inflammatory responses. At the end of the day, the individual is free to take those comments elsewhere and trumpet their views on their own pages to their own audience instead of yours. However, you should:

  • Make it clear and consistent what is and isn’t the type of commentary you’ll allow to stand on your page.
  • Tell people in your about section what will get them deleted or banned.
  • Explain the purpose of the page and, as the editor did in this post, how to reach you to discuss any criticisms they may have. Very often, people with legitimate complaints don’t know who to complain to, so they take it out in the wrong forum or on the wrong people (anyone who’s ever answered newsroom phones on a Sunday morning when the paper delivery guys made a few mistakes knows this well).
  • Don’t be afraid to delete blatant trolls. Don’t feed them either (I’m pretty sure this editor’s post is an example of feeding the trolls. It’s the type of reaction they want.)
  • But you shouldn’t delete every piece of negative feedback you receive, because it could be an opportunity to open the discussion. If nothing else, that’s what happened here.

      The comments on this Facebook post, between the editor and the readers, have encouraged the community to discuss some of the grievances made against the news page on the Facebook page. In the olden days, this would have been addressed in the editor’s weekly column, and maybe a caller or letter writer or two would chime in. Now, the discussion — good, bad and ugly — is taking place in public. That’s the power of the Internet.

      So now, I’m curious: How have you handled these situations? Does your organization have an explicit policy on how to handle such posts? Please share. I’d love to include and share some of them.