Public Editor: On protecting our staffers

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In recent weeks, The Stanford Daily has changed two of its internal policies regarding comment moderation and contact line information. The former, first announced at the end of Vol. 257, stipulated that The Daily would no longer allow a “free-for-all” in its online comment sections. From December 2020 onward, all comments published under articles are pre-moderated to ensure that engagement remains consistent with the publication’s standards — standards that welcome critique, but prohibit profanity, personal harassment and discrimination.

The most recent internal policy change involves author contact lines. Normally, at the end of each article, authors will sign off with the following: Contact Author Name at author ‘at’ stanford.edu. The contact line initially existed for the purpose of encouraging audience-author interaction. Readers who feel strongly about an article often reach out to authors via the contact line, with either critique or praise for the author. And for news writers especially, the existence of the contact line allowed for community members to directly message our news team with crucial tips.

But it has become abundantly clear that the contact line, though not without its benefits for the publication, created unacceptable security and safety risks for Daily authors. That’s why, in Vol. 259, the editorial staff made the decision to rid articles of contact lines containing personal emails, instead redirecting general audience-author contact to section-specific emails held under the stanforddaily.com alias. Staff members will also be granted a Daily-specific email after authoring a certain number of articles.

Implementing these policies was absolutely necessary, in order both to protect our journalists from undue hate and to uphold the spirit of honest and critical debate in our comment sections. To that end, I applaud both Vol. 258 and 259 editorial staff for their decision to pass these policy changes — and I especially commend the efforts of staffers who brought these issues to the forefront of the publication’s attention.

Yet, both of these policy changes are, in many ways, too little and too late.

Through both the comment section and through contact line emails, Daily staffers have been seriously harassed — not solely for the content of their writing, but for things like their gender identity, race and more. Before pre-moderation, disrespectful and discriminatory remarks could be left festering in the comment section for hours or days. Personal information and emails have been used to subject Daily staffers to hate mail. And some staffers have even received death threats. These comments, emails and threats left many writers upset at the blatant discrimination they faced and understandably concerned for their personal safety.

In the past, editors have taken somewhat of a laissez-faire approach to comment moderation and contact lines. Editors would delete hateful comments and ban repeat offenders from comment sections, but by that point, the damage was often already done. Daily staffers, particularly staffers with marginalized identities, were targeted as recipients of hate.

These are emotional and physical effects that go beyond momentarily upsetting a writer. The existence and enabling of verbal abuse in the comment sections and in the personal emails of students often put authors in dangerous personal situations, sometimes even exposing the writers to serious personal privacy breaches and forcing them to change their email aliases. That the comment sections and contact lines long enabled and implicitly invited these actions means that The Daily is also responsible for the hate it exposed its staffers to.

But more importantly, a lax approach to comment moderation has structural effects on diversity and equity at The Daily, and in the journalism world in general. The majority of the hate lobbed at our writers had to do with their personal race, gender, and sexuality, or their opinions or coverage on such matters. The fact that BIPOC and queer staffers could consistently face a disproportionate amount of hate and not receive adequate protection or response from The Daily is unacceptable. Such policies do not create an environment that actively strives to protect, support and uplift the publication’s writers.

As I make this argument, I recognize that my former position as Vice President and Executive Editor of this organization once put me in a position to be able to actually effect this change. While previous editors — myself included — took a more passive approach to topics like comment moderation and contact lines, such behavior was not acceptable then and should not be today. To that end, I am deeply regretful and sorry for not addressing these issues sooner and more decisively last year.

But in order to amend these wrongs today, The Daily needs to recognize that the legacy and effects of comment moderation and contact lines is deep and insidious enough to warrant further action than just the policy changes outlined above. That we are only just now catching up to peer publications like The Daily Californian and the Harvard Crimson — who both do not include writers’ personal emails in contact lines — is just the first step. There must be cultural shifts in the publication to recognize the severity of these issues, rather than just brushing them off as part and parcel of doing journalism.

First, The Daily needs to come up with a more concrete and proactive way of supporting its writers when they become the subject of hate or discrimination, either in comment sections, through emails, or even over social media. The issues raised above all have to do with editors simply not knowing what to do when confronted with these issues: How can they best emotionally support harassed writers? How can editors protect the privacy and safety of its writers? These questions can and should be addressed by The Daily’s editorial leadership, and the publication, in turn, should come up with a series of actions it can do to best support and protect its members — rather than retroactively trying to address the effects of such online hate.

Second, The Daily should fold into its new Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion programming explicit work on the protection of journalists from outside hate or discrimination. Two arms of our DEI program — the assessment team and the content improvement team — could include this work into their ongoing programming. Comment moderation and contact line policies are DEI-related work. Inclusion and equity involves creating a culture where writers will feel believed, heard and supported when they come forward about external and internal harassment, and this team is uniquely positioned to continue that work.

Finally, members of this publication need to understand that journalistic or Daily-specific “tradition” should never take precedent over the safety and mental health of Daily staffers. Precedent and past tradition should not have been excuses to continue with un-moderated comment sections or privacy-breaching contact lines. If an article, for example, incites hateful comments or harassment of the writer, editors should prepare to take action that might go against Daily “tradition”, such as temporarily or permanently retracting an article for the explicit purpose of protecting a writer’s identity. “What has always been” should never be prioritized over “what should be” — the current situation makes that fact abundantly clear.

These are internal changes that you, our audience, might not readily see. But the effects of these policies affect the way our publication operates and, more crucially, they directly affect the writers and staffers who produce the content you see right in front of you. This publication thrives only when its writers and staffers exist within a culture that allows them to engage with public thought without receiving undue discrimination. What we do with regards to comment moderation and contact lines directly affects the way we produce content, as well as the very content of the articles we produce.

The Daily is committed to publishing a diversity of op-eds and letters to the editor. We’d love to hear your thoughts. Email letters to the editor to eic ‘at’ stanforddaily.com and op-ed submissions to opinions ‘at’ stanforddaily.com. 

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Elizabeth Lindqwister is a senior from Peoria, Illinois, majoring in history. She is the Vol. 259 Public Editor, having previously served as the Vol. 257 Executive Editor and Vice President. Find her at CoHo or liz 'at' stanforddaily.com.