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Recently, I wrote a DK diary about having "same-sex marriage" (which would probably be better characterized as marriage equality) blocked in online comments to a story in the Idaho State Journal. ISJ is the local newspaper in the Southeast Idaho city of Pocatello. The story I attempted to post the comments to was about representative Elaine Smith (D-Pocatello) stating that protests by Add the Words at the Idaho state capitol building were having no effect ('Add the Words' protests aren't effective, Rep. Elaine Smith says). I thought the representative's comment were erroneous, and simply wanted to post a comment in support of Add the Words, and also critical of the stance taken by Smith.

The blog received many comments about how filter-blocking of such innocent terms has become a common practice. I have to admit I was naive about this. When I tried to post my comment, I received a message that it could not be posted because it contained profanity. It contained no words commonly understood to be profane (like George Carlin's seven words you can't say on television), and I couldn't understand what the problem was. I tried editing the comment in many different ways, but the result was always the same: it was blocked for profanity. Exasperated, I wrote the diary. A friend who read it later told me it was because it contained the word "sex," and that she once had the misfortune of having a comment blocked for the same reason.

I just got this email message from an editor at the paper:

We heard of and wanted to address your concern about the comment you had written on our web site being blocked because it contained the phrase "same-sex."

The word "sex" was part of a list of words automatically blocked by a spam/profanity blocker on the web site. The list of words is a default list which we can and do modify. We do not think the phrase "same-sex" is profane and did not intend for it to be blocked from comments on our site. We also understand that same-sex marriage is something that many people feel strongly about and are discussing on online forums. The word "sex" has since been removed from our list of blocked words. We apologize for the misunderstanding and inconvenience.

Thank you, editor.

Add the Words has been protesting for eight years to have the four words "sexual orientation" and "gender identity" added to Idaho's state Human Rights Act. Elaine Smith is objecting because they're tired of waiting, and are now regularly protesting in the state capitol. Hopefully the Idaho state government will learn something from the paper, because there's nothing wrong with those four words either.

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Comment Preferences

  •  In Essence They Hired an Editor Whose Work They (7+ / 0-)

    don't vet.

    Their business is words; anyone or ANYTHING that modifies the words they publish needs to be vetted and fully understood before being put on the job. And reviewed regularly.

    This should be framed as a failure of journalism, which it is, not some kind of technical glitch. It would be a technical glitch if it only affected peripheral aspects of their business, such as page color or fonts.

    Good on them for fixing it; however they need to put a few hands onto that reference dictionary and give it a very thorough review ASAP.

    We are called to speak for the weak, for the voiceless, for victims of our nation and for those it calls enemy.... --ML King "Beyond Vietnam"

    by Gooserock on Tue Mar 04, 2014 at 07:26:26 AM PST

    •  Agreed (5+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Aunt Pat, elwior, sfbob, blackhand, SuWho

      De facto censorship is as bad as any other kind if it gets you to the same place. And it doesn't seem right that you have to make such a fuss to change it. But I am glad that they responded and did it.

    •  "failure of journalism"? Hmmm... (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      elwior, SuWho

      ...only if you want to assert that the paper (or any online forum, for that matter) should assert full editorial control over all comments posted by random denizens of the Internet.

      The dirty-word-filter implementation of "community standards" is a minimal intrusion that has been tested in the courts (ref. Carlin and the FCC, yes?).  By no means does it imply that the paper is assuming overall editorial control.

      I just don't see how that rises to the level of "journalism", much less a "failure of journalism."

      Our difference of opinion aside, there's a real threat to the digital agora in your position. Online publishers are increasingly skittish about the public comment facilities; if you suggest that they have the same journalistic responsiiblity to public comment that they have for their own original works, and many online publishers will simply choose to disable/remove public comments entirely, as did Popular Science just six months ago.

      I don't think we want to go down that road. It's far better to engage on particular cases, such as this one--and big props to the newspaper in question for their response!--instead of turning this into some question of journalistic ethics.

      The word "parent" is supposed to be a VERB, people...

      by wesmorgan1 on Tue Mar 04, 2014 at 07:53:48 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  Maybe it is not an overall failure of journalism (0+ / 0-)

        I think there is something wrong with filtering sex automatically. I have no doubt they have the legal grounds to do it, but I just don't think its right.  I don't see a need for big props or even props to the paper. I thanked them and think that's appropriate. Whether it amounts to an issue of journalistic ethics or not, I'm not sure. I think it is an editorial problem--either they chose poorly, or didn't bother to choose and implemented a product without careful examination. It's good that they corrected the problem, but is it a problem they should even be having?

        •  If they don't... (1+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          esessis

          ...they could easily wind up like Popular Science, removing public comment altogether.

          I've been dealing with this "who's responsible for comments" question for decades, dating back to when I (as the postmaster and Usenet admin for an academic computing center) received emails demanding that I remove someone's "net access" because of their Usenet postings or contributions to mailing lists. You'd be surprised how many people believe that sites should be held accountable for the public comments of their users.

          I think most of us are accepting of a minimal intrustion, such as a 'dirty word filter' or the removal of links from comments. I notice that you weren't complaining about the existence of such a filter, but rather that it included a word you considered innocuous.

          It's a tough situation, to be sure, but I'll accept some limitations if the alternative is no public comment.

          Thanks for the conversation!

          The word "parent" is supposed to be a VERB, people...

          by wesmorgan1 on Tue Mar 04, 2014 at 01:30:17 PM PST

          [ Parent ]

          •  Thanks wesmorgan1 (0+ / 0-)

            This is not an easy situation. You are obviously well versed in the law surrounding this. You are right, I didn't complain about the filter. I do recognize it's impossible to go through postings individually and keep the volume of interaction I would like to see.  

        •  This happened many years ago (1+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          esessis

          when filtering software first came out, and has continued in many software products in many countries and languages.

          Content-control software

          "Breast" was on the list, so breast cancer and breast-feeding and chicken breast were out, along with "Music hath charms to soothe the savage breast." Women were enraged, along with teachers of literature and music. ^_^

          "Sex" was on the list, so there went sex education, and sex-linked inheritance in genetics, and Darwin's book Selection in Relation to Sex.

          Beaver College and the Horniman Museum got filtered.

          Scunthorpe problem

          Scunthorpe

          Shitake (In Japanese, shiitake, but this was English.)

          Craig COCKburn (pronounced Coburn), a software speCIALISt (also Socialism and Socialist)

          C-ALLAH-an

          Libshitz and many other such names

          Any name including Dick, like Tricky Dick Nixon

          Super Bowl XXX

          Sussex, Essex, Middlesex

          Academic degrees granted with the honors Magna cum laude or Summa cum laude

          The bird names cock, tit, shag, and booby

          And so on.

          Back off, man. I'm a logician.—GOPBusters™

          by Mokurai on Tue Mar 04, 2014 at 10:12:14 PM PST

          [ Parent ]

  •  I knew it! (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    elwior, esessis
    The word "sex" was part of a list of words automatically blocked by a spam/profanity blocker on the web site.  
    So what's probably happening is that newspaper sites are upgrading their spam filters--because they have no choice, really, due to the, erm,  "public relations initiatives" being foisted on these forums nationwide. And 95% of the site managers don't have enough staff anymore to perform The Little Things tasks--the tasks that people used to take care of as a part of "being thorough" when doing one's job. So they're accepting "default lists" sight-unseen. And they don't find out about it until someone actively points it out to them.

    You wonder who actually builds these filters. Like I said yesterday, I give them the benefit of the doubt to a certain extent, because of SEO writing/manipulation around the Internets. But if all these site managers need to do is check a default list and modify it, that simply doesn't take that long to do.

    This all started with "what the Republicans did to language".

    by lunachickie on Tue Mar 04, 2014 at 07:54:24 AM PST

    •  Remember "Don't Sweat the Small Stuff"? (4+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      lunachickie, sfbob, esessis, SuWho

      What started as an approach with the potential for personal stress reduction was adopted (foolishly, imo) by business and government in their rush to "increase (measurable) productivity." All those little behind-the-scenes activities that end up being the basis upon which so much else rests are now discounted as unimportant wastes of time.

      Perhaps they think that, if any of them matter, someone will point it out (as happened with this diarist and other online commenters) and they will address it then - when complaints elevate it to "no longer small stuff."

      At governmental levels, that "small stuff" was basic infrastructure maintenance. (Why waste time making periodic checks on structure - if all the bolts are still tight, for instance? We'll wait until the need for repairs becomes obvious, then make them.)

      Unfortunately, once the need for repair becomes obvious, more money is spent than would have been spent on maintenance in most cases - and sometimes "when the need for repair becomes obvious" is when a section of a bridge falls into the river it spans.

      •  Exactly! (4+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        AJayne, sfbob, esessis, SuWho
        All those little behind-the-scenes activities that end up being the basis upon which so much else rests are now discounted as unimportant wastes of time.
        While some of them are not super-human-life critical--like this issue, though I still think of it as 'important' in some ways--but the example you give of "preventative maintenance" of our infrastructure could literally mean a matter of life and death for people.

        This all started with "what the Republicans did to language".

        by lunachickie on Tue Mar 04, 2014 at 09:09:46 AM PST

        [ Parent ]

    •  I agree (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      SuWho

      and share similar sentiments in the response to the last comment, above. What else it getting filtered? Dog? Cat? Probably not, but it makes you wonder. What else would their product outlaw along with sex? I do have sympathy for understaffing, and declining popularity of print journalism makes them increasingly invulnerable to these kinds of intrusions.

  •  Thanks for the update! (4+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    elwior, esessis, SuWho, novapsyche

    All too often, the intitial outrage spreads much faster and more widely than does the resolution, even if the resolution comes with in a day or so.

    I'm glad you came back with a quick update and a public appreciation of the paper's quick handling of the matter.

    The word "parent" is supposed to be a VERB, people...

    by wesmorgan1 on Tue Mar 04, 2014 at 07:55:13 AM PST

  •  That's a nice update (6+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    elwior, AJayne, sfbob, esessis, SuWho, Mokurai

    Good to know they caught up.

    Also, Add The Words protesters are being arresting this morning. They blocked entrances at the Capitol, including Otter's private entrance and office. Story here.

    Police arrested 20 protesters, but there were others waiting in the rotunda to take their place. :-)

    Want to diary about this but don't have the energy this morning.

    P.S. I am not a crackpot.

    by BoiseBlue on Tue Mar 04, 2014 at 07:58:08 AM PST

    •  Thanks BB (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      BoiseBlue

      This is sad news that they led Nicole away in handcuffs. You know, I try to avoid name calling but rat bastards comes to mind.

      •  I've met Nicole several times (0+ / 0-)

        Once was after the morning we all protested at the hearing, a couple of years ago. She was at the same bar I was, and I thanked her for her efforts that morning. I said, "you know, they're just such cowards," and she replied, "No, they're assholes."

        Couldn't argue with that!

        P.S. I am not a crackpot.

        by BoiseBlue on Tue Mar 04, 2014 at 11:35:38 AM PST

        [ Parent ]

  •  Good result (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    sfbob, esessis

    and kudos, actually, to the paper for responding positively.

    I have no idea how they run their website, but many of the filters used are operated by private companies who manage the service for a fee.

    Our School District uses a company called "Two Trees" to manage the firewall.

    It is perfectly possible that the newspaper didn't compile the list and were not managing it themselves, but they would be able to add and remove words and terms.

    I hope that the quality of debate will improve,
    but I fear we will remain Democrats.

    Who is twigg?

    by twigg on Tue Mar 04, 2014 at 09:00:05 AM PST

  •  My comment to them would have been along the lines (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    esessis

    of, "who are you to tell me what I am to be offended by or find profane?".  

    Seriously, though, I am glad that you were able to persuade them to adjust their filters.  I don't agree with blanket preemptive filtering and think that if something is a problem it should be dealt with accordingly and on a specific basis.

    "It's not surveillance, it's data collection to keep you safe"

    by blackhand on Tue Mar 04, 2014 at 11:19:59 AM PST

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