Sunday, August 23, 2009

Parents Behaving Badly

The Washington Post's ombudsman discusses reader comments, along with whether and when they should be deleted. In relation to this story, about people who pretend that they're still employed, despite having being laid off, negative comments were posted by people claiming to be one of the subjects' wife and daughter:
Cole said he was stunned by the comments. Before agreeing to cooperate for the story, he said, reporter Annie Gowen had told him The Post monitors abusive comments. He had been reassured after reading The Post's rules that forbid inappropriate comments.

"What level of responsibility does the Post have [for] what should be considered unacceptable comments?" he asked me last week.
Although not in a context as busy as the Post's website ("The Post's Web site can get more than 20,000 comments a week"), I run some "busy enough" web forums. Despite clear written policieis, I've often had to deal with demands to "delete my posts" or "stop people from being mean to me". But honestly, when people behave badly the source of the problem is rarely (dare I say "never') a site's comment moderation policy - it's that they're people, and sometimes people behave badly.

Let's first take a look at the wife's explanation for her posts about her husband:
Lori Cole insists [a correction of the story] is in order and faults The Post for not contacting her before publishing the story, especially since it identified her and the Coles' two adolescent children. [The article's author, Annie] Gowen said she asked Clinton Cole to introduce her to his wife, but that he dissuaded her because of stress in the family from his job loss.
The article does identify Lori Cole, and anybody who knows them is going to understand the reference to their children, but it's a bit strong to say the kids are "identified":
Meanwhile, the fortunes of the family, which includes his wife, Lori, and two children, ages 13 and 9, have spiraled downward. They are on food stamps. Dinner is sometimes cold cereal.
Don't get me wrong - if the publishing of the story was a surprise to the family, the father needs to take responsibility for that. He should have either said, "The story's about me, so please don't mention my family," or at least warned them that it was coming. Given that he instead said, "Don't talk to my wife," its easy to see how she would feel sandbagged.

But if we move to the comments under discussion, the mother has no room to complain about his putting their children into the story:
Cole's wife blasted her husband. Rather than being laid off, Lori Cole wrote in a comment, he was "fired for poor performance." She said their marriage is broken.

Then [E.] Cole, who identified herself as the couple's 13-year-old daughter, posted a comment saying her father had mental problems.
So dad brought his children into the story with reference to their age, then mom brought more personal, embarrassing details into the story. Shortly afterward, whether by invitation or by coincidence, the daughter posted using her full name, to post a personal attack on dad. The context, according to dad,
His wife is "conducting a smear campaign because, quite frankly, she's trying to win a large amount of money in a divorce court."
Well, if his prior story is to be believed, it's difficult to also believe that he has a large amount of money he could pay out in a divorce settlement. But it does, perhaps, explain why he didn't want his wife interviewed for the story.

The Post's ombudsman concludes,
I think [the comments] should have been removed when The Post received the initial abuse report. Further reporting could have been conducted before deciding whether they should appear. With such incendiary charges, it seems only fair.
I'll assume the Post's moderation software allows comments to be deleted from public view, while preserving them for the record in a manner that allows for their later restoration. Even if that's the case, for practical reasons I disagree with the idea that comments should be deleted, investigated, and considered for reinstatement. If a violation of the posting rules is not apparent from the comments on their face, it would put an incredible burden on the person responsible for moderating threads to be asked, "Delete the borderline ones, just in case, then investigate their truth." Further, as the article notes,
Legally, The Post isn't liable for comments. Under federal law, responsibility rests with the commenters.
Does he believe that immunity would continue even after the Post brands a previously removed comment as "true (or close enough to true)" and restores it to public view?

But lets go back to the comments for a moment. I disagree that mom's comment should have been deleted. She was stating her side of the story, and she's a grown-up. But I probably would not have left the daughter's comment in place, even if we assume that the comment was made, unprompted, by the daughter. It was the choices of the parents that brought the children into this, and I don't see that they belong in the middle.


  1. So your rationale for deleting the derogatory comment made by the daughter (who voluntarily made the comment) about her father would be that you want to protect the daughter?

    I probably just missed something, but I'm not following the logic.

    Would you delete any comment made by a minor that provided personal info (name, etc) about the poster?


  2. I think the child was put in the middle by her parents - first by her dad, making her the subject of a news story, and then... well, its pretty clear mom at the very least knew that the daughter was posting. And I suspect the daughter's comments are going to be an exhibit in her parents' divorce litigation.

    She's thirteen. Call her participation voluntary, if you will, but I still see the predominant issue as her getting pulled into this ugliness by her parents. If you look at the content of the comments posted in the girl's name, they include allegations that she would not have thought of or learned about by herself, although (beyond whatever inference can be drawn from the fact that they consistently cast him in a negative light) I can't exclude the possibility that they came from her dad.

    It's not my opinion that the Post's comment threads, or my forums (where people ask about real legal problems), are suitable places for children to be inserted into the middle of their parents divorce disputes, even if ostensibly of "their own free will".

  3. Assuming, of course, this really was the daughter posting.

  4. And, although I didn't mention it before, the 'neighbor' who several times vouched for mom and daughter.

    I'm assuming it was the daughter, as that didn't appear to be at issue in the current back-and-forth between her parents and the Post.


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