If you think the ethics of 'death knock' journalists are bad, you should see comment spammers

 by Martin Belam, 21 July 2010

One of links doing the rounds on Twitter today is Roy Greenslade's blog post about "The death knock", talking about Chris Wheal's experience of being on the receiving end of journalist behaviour after a tragedy in the family. It is a sobering story that gets right at the heart of the ethics of our industry.

But if you think the ethics of journalism leave something to be desired, you should see the ethics of comment spammers.

Within 20 minutes of Greenslade's piece being published on guardian.co.uk, someone had registered a brand new user account specifically to leave spammy comments underneath it, trying to sell, of all things, life insurance. Our moderation team very swiftly removed them.

Having mentioned it on Twitter I was asked "do you ever consider turning off comments when the content is such that callous spam commenting is a possibility?". The answer is yes - we seldom, if ever, have comments open on the 'Experience' series, for example, where people tell very personal stories, and our readers are not shy of telling us when they think having comments open is inappropriate.

As with all things digital, as an organisation you hope to learn all the time. With the Cumbria live blog, we responded to the concerns, and closed the comment thread. With something like today's Greenslade blog post, you hope it will spark a debate amongst our audience about the issues involved. Indeed, Chris Wheal himself has joined the thread, which shows the value of having the comments open, even if it is a calculated risk.

And to be honest, if you worried too much about link spam in comments, you'd never open any threads at all. This isn't just an 'Internet newspaper comment thread' issue - any blogger who has 'dofollow' links in their comments will know about the barrage of link spam that has to be dealt with daily. The key is to have the right systems in place. The Guardian's 'Report abuse' button has 'spam' specifically as one of the options, and links in the comments on guardian.co.uk are nofollow, so that even if something does slip through, it is of no value for SEO.

But honestly, as a link spammer, how low can you sink?


I can understand comments being allowed for politics and society stuff - people love venting their opinionated spleens over that. They somehow think that enough moaning or sarcastically made points makes a difference. While occasionally someone will post something that adds a lot to the topic, the amount of heavily upmodded tripe (usually one-line witticism or criticism) turned me off scrolling down to it.

So...why not for things that require 'inside knowledge' or are sensitive topics like this one, just not allow comments? All the society issues, cartoon, whatever will draw the usual crowd - but this crowd can't really provide much insight other than their own sardonic criticism of the 'Why didn't you realize this?' or 'Well Dacre gets away with it...' flavour.

As you rightly said, worst case scenario is you get a boatload of spam - some of it offensive or rude: Spammers are scum by and large; the methods they use to sell junk like fake pills or fake jewellery is evidence enough. You can't expect anything less disgusting from this crowd - and frankly anywhere is fair game to them, even a 'quality' news site.

That the Guardian very stupidly allowed comments on a rolling update of the Bird massacre in Cumbria not long ago is an indication of why you guys need to communicate closer on these things. For it isn't ethical to allow decisions like that to go ahead anymore than it is to harass people who are suffering for the sake of a 'story'.

If you would Martin, do tell why you lot aren't always thinking when you choose whether to check the 'allow comments' box?

Hello, my name is Vladimir, I from Ukraine. You correctly say, that a spam in comments a-problem of any blogger. But, at the same time, if will be comments-you learn reactions of people to the post. Use moderation. Can consider mine comment as a spam, I only have told the point of view)
Yours faithfully.

Morals and ethics - these concepts continually float in and out of most subjects taught in a journalism course. It seems when these grads come out into the real-world, they misplace these ideals in favour of a good story. Feel very sorry for Chris Wheal and his family.

Comment spam is a problem for anyone that takes blogging seriously. Many times those who comment ask where it becomes spam and I think the answer lies in the intent. If you are looking to contribute then in most cases it is not comment spam.

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