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Why Humans, Not Machines, Make the Tough Calls on Comments

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An abbreviation considered vulgar by New York Times standards also refers to perfectly innocent people aspiring to become bachelors of science. Here is a small but revealing reason that artificial intelligence cannot replace human news judgment in Times journalism.

Software helps The Times keep up with a deluge of 12,000 reader comments that pour in each day. Comments appear on 15 percent of all articles published online. Since 2017, The Times has depended on a program designed by Alphabet, Google’s parent company, that helps automate the vetting process by relying on patterns from more than 16 million acceptances and rejections of comments by Times moderators.

Despite the software’s power, it cannot differentiate between crude and acceptable uses of the same word or phrase — like “B.S.” Deeper questions also arise. Where should you draw the line between criticizing and insulting, nicknaming and name-calling, extrapolating and digressing?

It is the job of Erin Wright to render verdicts on these matters of ethics and etiquette. She is a senior staff editor on The Times’s Community desk, a small team devoted to moderating comments.

Last month, Ms. Wright allowed a journalist to observe her work through a queue of submitted comments responding to a profile of Jen Psaki, the Biden administration press secretary.

“We have had some criticism of her, and as long as it doesn’t delve into name-calling or any sort of information that we know to be untrue, criticism is fair game,” Ms. Wright said.

By making sure the comments section reflects the civil tone of The Times, Ms. Wright and her colleagues help engage readers and give them a sense of involvement and belonging surrounding the paper’s work.

The Times’s software automatically approves some comments, and moderators can simply take down anything posted in error. But the software is not allowed to summarily dismiss a comment.

Every dismissed comment is “hand rejected” by a human moderator, said Marcia Loughran, the senior editor in charge of the Community desk. “We want to make sure we’re being fair to readers.”

As Ms. Wright looked through comments on the profile of Ms. Psaki, she explained her moderating decisions, speaking slowly and enunciating every word. She wears long, rectangular glasses, as if to make sure she detects from the corners of her eyes the sort of minor subtleties that are easily missed.

Ms. Wright gives most comments a scan of about 10 seconds and approves what she sees.

“We’re not going to reject somebody just for being critical of our reporting,” she said about one worthy comment.

In another submission, a reader used the Psaki profile to make a larger point about habits of the news media. “We love when commenters extrapolate from our report,” Ms. Wright said.

One submission referred to Donald J. Trump as “Liar in Chief.”

Reject. “We don’t do name-calling,” Ms. Wright said. “We’ll have a wonderful comment — it’s perfect in every way — but then we have some name-calling that slips in, and we have to reject it.”

Another comment began uncontroversially, saying Ms. Psaki exemplifies “the greatest strengths of the X Generation,” then continued, “Am I allowed to point out how easy it is on my eyes to watch her briefings?”

The software indicated that the comment would be accepted. Ms. Wright was not sure.

“We don’t want to have too much of that in the comments, where it becomes a referendum on her appearance,” she said. “Yes, it’s in the Styles section, but it’s about her doing her job. This doesn’t mean I’m going to reject it.”

Ms. Wright and Ms. Loughran conferred. Did the article raise the subject of Ms. Psaki’s appearance? Ms. Wright observed there was a reference to her being left-handed, but not much more. Reject.

Ms. Wright moved on to other articles, including an advice column that discussed thievery of sandwiches from a work refrigerator. “We can let commenters joke around with certain things,” Ms. Wright said, “but we don’t want to have a suggestion like this of putting a laxative in a decoy sandwich.” Reject.

With characteristic tact, Ms. Wright indicated she could not keep narrating each of her decisions to a reporter. It was time to focus on work.

“Our commenters love that we moderate,” she said. “They don’t need to worry about trolls or spam. But they also don’t love waiting.”

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