Hazmat for Toxic Comments — A Guest Post by Dave Statter

April 30, 2010

Dave Statter is a very well-known blogger on fire and EMS issues at statter911.com. I’ve linked there a few times and appreciated him commenting here. Not long ago, he commented on a post about blog comments. I really liked what he had to say and asked if he would prepare a guest post on the topic. Here is some great advice for anyone who engages in blogs or any form of social media. If you haven’t encountered toxic talk yet, you certainly will.

Hazmat for Toxic Comments
You’re a jerk. You hate volunteer firefighters. You hate career firefighters. You’re a racist. You suck. Everyone should boycott your blog.
Those are some of the printable negative comments I received in the first months of STATter911.com. The blog features fire and emergency medical services news focusing on the Washington, D.C. area where I am a TV reporter.
As the comments trickled in, after starting the site three-years-ago, it became clear I was not immune to the toxic thoughts that plague every website with an open public forum. This virtual vitriol was usually directed at a fire chief or some other public official mentioned in one of my stories but readers were also taking aim at the messenger.

Nasty comments were not something I had given much thought to as a new blogger. In fact, most of the 16,000 plus comments you’ll now find on the site are not vicious. They’re usually just opinions on a fire department policy, the actions of a fire chief or tactics used to fight a fire. But on the blog — like news websites everywhere — there are people emboldened by anonymity who go a step further. They are on the attack. They target the subject of a news story, the blogger and the people who comment. And they do it in a very personal way.

Some top emergency management officials in the country tell me how much they enjoy STATter911.com but can’t stand the comments about themselves or their colleagues. There are also firefighters, paramedics & public information officers who constantly complain about a negative tone in the comments section. I agree with them when it comes to the personal attacks. My lofty goal is a respectful exchange of ideas that doesn’t focus on personalities. I know… I’m dreaming.

My guidelines are simple. Any of George Carlin’s seven dirty words (plus a few he failed to mention) will always prompt me to hit the reject button. I do the same when posters decide to be reporters, presenting new “facts” I can’t verify. But going beyond these limited rules seems a slippery, subjective slope for a free speech advocate like me. I always challenge those complaining about the comments section to give me workable guidelines that don’t smack of censorship. No one has met that challenge. Like me, they soon realize one person’s view of “crossing the line” is very different than the next.

I have no magic formula to fairly and successfully weed out those comments. But if toxic words on an Internet forum are directed at you — and your reputation is on the line — I may be able to help. Consider what the readers said about me. How do you respond when you are called a racist jerk who sucks? First, you need to know I’m fair game on my blog. If comments meet the language test, they’re posted. But the negative comments went beyond STATter911.com. My reporting had become a topic of conversation among firefighters on thewatchdesk.com. FYI: No language filter on that site! Friends in the news media and the fire service urged me not to engage the Statter-haters. They believed it would only make things worse. But I had reputation management in mind. My own. I wanted anyone who Googled Dave Statter to get both sides of the story. It became a bit time consuming, but I responded to each attack. Still, watching others go down in flames trying to defend themselves on anonymous forums gave me pause. Like a hazmat team dealing with a toxic substance I knew to proceed with caution.
I needed a set of rules for this on-line reputation management. They’re now my personal SOP and I believe they work.

•    I never attack the attackers.
•    I try to get beyond their emotions and point out the facts behind the
issues.
•    I explain the why and how of what I do.
•    I challenge the writer, in a firm but nice way, to back up their claims with
facts.
•    I make a maximum effort not to sound defensive.
•    I try to infuse a self-deprecating sense a humor into my responses.
•    If I find valid points within the emotional rhetoric it’s acknowledged and
corrected.
•    I thank them for reading my blog and taking the time to write.

My goal, then and now, is setting the record straight and telling my story. I’m not looking for love.

When I started fighting back three-years-ago the first replies were often worse than the original toxic comments.
I stood my ground. I repeatedly asked for the facts behind their emotion. Instead, I got something different.
A small number of these overly passionate writers actually thanked me for the response. They understood my point of view and respectfully disagreed. One or two went further. They began an email dialogue and soon became sources for future stories.
When the toxic writers didn’t change their ways, the community often joined in. Forum readers told the offending poster they should put up (the facts backing their point of view) or shut up.

In the end, the flame throwers couldn’t provide any real facts to support their positions. In virtually every case, whether the rest of the community responded or not, the attacks stopped. A few returned for a second or third round in reaction to a new blog story. After getting the same type of responses from me they disappeared.

I stood up to the school yard bullies and won. Very different than grade school where they took my lunch money.
Still, this technique may not work for everyone. Here’s why:
You have to check your ego at the door and need a thick hide. If you’re easily offended and can’t respond without sounding defensive, don’t engage the enemy. You will be dead meat. My experience is they’ll sense your weakness and pounce harder.
It’s important to find someone you trust to monitor your responses. They can let you know if you’re wandering outside the guidelines. My monitor was a fire service friend who gave very good feedback.

I no longer hear from any of the bullies on thewatchdesk.com. I searched the site while writing this and found it has been a long time since anyone made me the target of a toxic comment.

On STATter911.com the traffic has more than tripled, but the attacks against me have dramatically decreased.
My experience is telling your own story in this very specific way solves a few problems. It neutralizes even the most toxic comments. It puts the facts on the record. It also sets a tone. Attacks on your reputation won’t go unchallenged. And along the way you may earn a little respect.

Now, if we could just get everyone who writes online to focus on the issues and not demonize those they disagree with. Still dreaming.

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5 Responses to “Hazmat for Toxic Comments — A Guest Post by Dave Statter”

  1. J.D. Says:

    Dave — you’ve gotta be half a nut to think these tips will work!

    Just kidding. Great post and great guidelines.

    One add-on. I think one guideline for deleting blog-post comments can be borrowed from most Facebook “pool rules” for deleting posts. It is okay to delete if:

    The comment can be considered offensive, abusive, defamatory, or obscene to any of your blog readers.

    The comment violates any law or regulations.

    The comment is spam (i.e., same post over-and-over, for the sake of flooding your comment section.

  2. Dave Statter Says:

    J.D.,

    Let’s be clear – I am a COMPLETE nut (notice I am following my rule #6 about self-deprecating humor in answering the toxic part of your comment).

    I agree with your point about spam, which is always deleted (rule #7, acknowledge their valid points).

    On the “laws or regulations” part, if you don’t mind, give me an example of such a comment (rule #2, ask them for the facts).

    While my personal feelings are that I don’t want any “offensive, abusive, defamatory remarks” on the blog, putting it into practice is very difficult on a news site. (rule #3, explain what you do).

    Where is the line for a news site that encourages opinions from readers? In YOUR opinion are any of these comments offensive, abusive or defamatory – “Chief Smith is the worst fire chief this department has ever seen” or “If Chief Smith doesn’t concentrate on safety policies he is going to be responsible for a firefighter being killed”? or “Chief Smith is a big, fat jerk?”

    At least some of my readers are going to be offended by those comments. Others are going to say “right on”.

    Maybe I am the big, fat jerk, but I would find it difficult to delete any of the comments about Chief Smith.

    What I will delete is a comment that “Chief Smith is a child molester” or “Chief Smith has been arrested for driving while intoxicated” when there is nothing on the record to back up those charges.

    Here is the really frustrating part. I post those comments but have deleted a number of beautifully written, well thought out, respectful arguments because the writer used a four-letter word that wasn’t part of an attack on anyone. One thing I am not allowed to do is edit any of the comments. I can only post or reject.

    While I didn’t get into it in the column, I have found there is a lot more behind the posting guidelines issue. As you can see, even the ones I have in place present me with decisions I am not always happy about making.

    But J.D., I do appreciate that you read what I wrote and took the time to respond (rule #8, thank the writer).

    Dave


  3. Great post and comments. Few commentators on my blog at http://vlg338.blogspot.com because it is limited in scope and purpose–largely FEMA centric historically.

  4. karin Says:

    Po raz kolejny, dziecko wydaje się być jedynym ocalałym z katastrofy samolotu przerażające. To już trzeci w http://www.tvdrawing.com ciągu ostatnich 12 miesięcy. zbieg okoliczności? Myślę, że nie. Po jego nieszczęście, dwa razy mogą być uznane za przypadkowe, trzy razy … wynagrodzenia kiddies uwagę, duch stara się nauczyć nas czegoś.

    Hej, były to prawe skrzydło geniuszy próbuje za to winić Obowma lub guvmint? Witam, są faceci snu późno? kretyni.

  5. brisa Says:

    POMBA GIRA DE LAS 7 SAYAS MI REINA, conozco tu fuerza y tu poder, te pido encarecidamente que vayas a mi hombre JM, haciendole pensar en mi FL las 24 horas del dia, que no tenga ojos para ninguna otra mujer que no sea yo, su mujer FL, que JM quede excitado solo de oir mi voz, que piense en hacerme su esposa, que aumente su nostalgia y su deseo de verme, quedar conmigo, que tenga mucho celos de mis pasos, que se arrepienta de haberme dejado ir y ahora quiera casarse conmigo FL.Que JM sea cariñoso, amoroso, dedicado, que piense en mi FL todo el tiempo, que no tenga ojos para ninguna otra mujer que no sea yo FL, que solo yo FL sea la unica mujer para JM, que JM tenga solo un proposito, hacer a FL su esposa, ya esta hecho. Confio en ti MI REINA, que JM venga a mi FL muy apasionado y loco de amor, que JM sea solo mio, para mi FL . SALVE POMBA GIRA REINA DE LAS 7 ENCRUCIJADAS, confio en tu poder, voy a divulgar tu nombre por las 4 esquinas del mundo.GRACIAS!POMBA!


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