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Posted on Fri, Dec 16, 2011 : 9:55 a.m.

Why we're applying our regular conversation guidelines to Howard Weinblatt coverage

By Tony Dearing

Every now and then, there’s a conversation people are aching to have on our site, but what they want to talk about violates our conversation guidelines.

So do we let them say whatever they want? Or do we enforce our guidelines?

In this case, we’re sticking with our guidelines. But we feel we owe it to our readers to explain why.

Let me start by acknowledging that the criminal case against Dr. Howard Weinblatt is an unusual one, with a very unique set of circumstances. It has raised many questions and concerns — most of which our readers are welcome to comment on.

People are free to criticize our coverage, or to question the actions of the police or prosecutor. People certainly are welcome to voice their support for Weinblatt, and testify to his character and his distinguished record as a pediatrician. There are equally legitimate questions about someone being charged with a crime for behavior that occurred inside his own home, and many comments have been posted to that effect. That’s all fair game.

However, many comments also have been posted that seek to attack or blame the family of the alleged victim, and we are not allowing that; those comments have been removed. On one previous story, we had to close commenting because of this issue.

For any story involving a crime or tragic death, we have a clear set of commenting guidelines and we work hard to enforce them consistently. Among other things, our guidelines ask commenters not to blame the victim, and not to suggest that the accident or alleged crime could have been avoided if the victim had behaved differently.

These guidelines have been tested over time on a broad range of stories. They are fair and reasonable. Most readers support these concepts, and understand why we apply them.

However, the circumstances of the Weinblatt case have resulted in a level of push-back from readers that we don’t usually get. Quite a few of our readers share a strong perception that the parents who reported this incident to police could or should have handled the situation differently, and they feel compelled to make that point.

We understand how strong the desire is to comment on this aspect of the story, and we’ve had more than one internal discussion about whether we are applying our guidelines correctly, and whether we should allow such a discussion, based on the particular circumstances of this case.

Ultimately, we’ve concluded that we need to stand by our guidelines. They are based on the principle that when someone is charged with a crime, the victims are not the ones who should be put on trial in the court of public opinion. We’re also concerned about how little is actually known about what happened, and what the family actually did or didn’t do to address it. Until more details come out, we don’t think it’s fair to allow commenters to criticize or attack the family based on assumptions about what might have happened, when we don’t allow such attacks in any other circumstance.

We realize that some readers are chaffing mightily against this restriction, but we believe our guidelines are fair and appropriate, and we haven’t found a reason to set them aside for this story. Thanks for the opportunity to explain our guidelines and the thinking behind them

To read our conversation guidelines, click here.



Wed, Jan 18, 2012 : 8:04 p.m.

Again, with regards to's policies, the link provided by Mr. Dearing goes to a May 31, 2011 post entitled " publishes revised conversation guidelines". That post list guidelines as follows: "Please avoid: - Off-topic comments - Personal attacks against private individuals - Insensitivity to victims of accidents or crimes - Presuming guilt on the part of persons accused of crimes* - Using tragedies to make a political point - Posting personal information about individuals - Racist, sexist and offensive language, including abbreviated or masked swearing - Posting in all capital letters, which is viewed as shouting - Breaking copyright law - Commercial postings and press releases. Non-commercial postings can be entered on the Community Wall. * We strive to balance the ability of commenters to discuss legal cases with the right of the accused to the presumption of innocence until proven guilty. We will remove comments that assert guilt. Comments that imply guilt will be reviewed on a case-by-case basis. Words like "allegedly" or phrases like "If he is guilty" will help to keep your comment from being removed." Perhaps there are other guidelines that I have missed, but Mr. Dearing's statement here is not a direct reassertion of the guidelines published in May 2011. The only mention of victims in May 2011 regards "insensitivity". "Insensitivity" is a subjective term, and I posit that it is does not necessarily prohibit any discussion of actions or inaction of an "alleged victim" during an "alleged crime". Further, it is clearly the letter and intent of the guidelines to temper a presumption of guilt in the comments section. But as pointed out by Corey Finney, the outcome of the editorial censoring is to produce a comment section that appears overwhelmingly negative against the alleged perpetrator. This seems to be counter to the stated policy, and should be reconsidered.

Tony Dearing

Thu, Jan 19, 2012 : 10:56 p.m.

Thanks for these points. Now that additional factual information has become available regarding this case, we are reconsidering how we moderate comments on stories going forward. We may make changes, and will announce that if we do.


Wed, Jan 18, 2012 : 7:23 p.m.

I have no comment on this particular case; my comments are spurred by this editorial statement.'s policies and the statement above give me pause as they seem to be highly biased. The statement: "our guidelines ask commenters not to blame the victim, and not to suggest that the accident or alleged crime could have been avoided if the victim had behaved differently." Why? I can think of instances where the actions, or in actions, of an alleged victim are pertinent as to the issue of whether or not a crime has even occurred. The actions of an alleged victim are regularly considered by law enforcement, prosecutors and the courts when determining the existence and magnitude of a crime. They are fair to discuss in trial. Why not here? And more disturbingly, if not here, then why do the guidelines make it permissible to question the behavior of an alleged perpetrator? The statement: "These guidelines have been tested over time on a broad range of stories. They are fair and reasonable. Most readers support these concepts, and understand why we apply them." Asserting that your policies are tested, fair and reasonable is not the same as making the assertion true. Further, what evidence do is there that "Most readers support...and understand why"? That seems to be an attempt to justify the prior assertion but I'm finding it difficult to believe based on the comments posted here, and the multitude complaints throughout the site and over time where folks claim to have had reasonable comments deleted. I admit that this is a difficult issue for the editors, and I do not have an obvious solution to offer. But I also get the sense that does not yet have the best solution either. I think this policy deserves reconsideration.


Wed, Jan 18, 2012 : 6:41 p.m.

Tony, you had better be more careful about your use of "victim" to describe what it actually an "alleged victim" in this case. You switch back and forth in your post as if there's no distinction. There's a very real legal (and journalistic) reason why you need to consistently use the correct term. Relatedly: since there is no victim here - just an alleged one - your guidelines are not being violated by anyone making an insensitive comment about the girl. As an alleged victim, I see she is technically not covered by your guidelines. You may have intended them to apply in a case like this, but that's how they're currently written. Finally: her mother and other family members are not victims or alleged victims at all - they are certainly involved, but are adults not party to the (alleged) crime. Can you respond as to how commenting on their actions violates your guidelines?

Tony Dearing

Thu, Jan 19, 2012 : 10:54 p.m.

Thanks for raising this issue, which also was raised in an earlier comment by DBH. Please see my reply to him. As for the mother and other family members, this post was written at a time when there was much less information available regarding what occurred. Now that more information is available, we are reviewing that, and are considering changes to how we are moderating this story. If we make such changes, I will explain what those changes are and why.


Fri, Jan 13, 2012 : 11:13 p.m. is allowing this case to be tried in the press, but is not allowing the multiple sides of the story to be heard. They are instead intent on destroying the reputation of the good doctor without letting anyone defend him. This will only contribute to the tainting of the jury pool because all that people are able to read is information and comments that attacks the doctor. I hope that when these charges are dismissed or he is acquitted that will apologize and do everything they can to help restore his reputation that they have had such a large hand in destroying.


Tue, Jan 3, 2012 : 9:58 p.m.

I am very disappointed with the reporting that Ann is providing in this case finding it excessively sensationalist. That coupled with the way conversational guidelines are being enforced is problematic. You are seriously harming your credibility and professionalism in my eyes.


Tue, Jan 3, 2012 : 5:35 p.m.

If Dr. Weinblatt files a countersuit against the family for invasion of privacy/defamation/something else along those lines, then will commenters be allowed to comment about the girl and her family?

Tony Dearing

Tue, Jan 3, 2012 : 5:48 p.m.

That's a hypothetical situation, and we would address it that point, based on a lot of things, including information that isn't known now, but might be know at that point, as well as the outcome of the criminal case, which might be concluded by then. Right now, we have to moderate based on the pending criminal charges and the information that is currently known and not known.


Sat, Dec 24, 2011 : 12:59 p.m.

What I found newsworthy about this story is that as a parent who frequently has to help my 12 year old understand she's not a little girl anymore and needs to be more aware about privacy, I could just let her read the first story for herself. I haven't had to nag her once to close her blinds while changing her clothes or when taking a shower since this story first came out. She gets it now and chooses her privacy for herself. I'm sorry this is happening to these individuals and won't assume I know what either side should/shouldn't have done. Beyond all the gritty details and speculations, there is real educational value in this story for families like mine.

P Beal

Wed, Dec 21, 2011 : 2:54 p.m.

> Many commentators have made my point already and this is your difficulty in coverage: Our legal system is advesarial (sp?)...BOTH parties have to try to prove their case. You have to find a way to avoid establishing a prejudiced position, especially if it derives from a policy determined, mandated default...


Sat, Dec 17, 2011 : 7:20 p.m.

Tony, I think you need to examine's policy on "victims" in this explanation of your guidelines as opposed to your comment moderation guidelines in general. To quote from your original article above, "However, many comments also have been posted that seek to attack or blame the family of the ALLEGED [my emphasis] victim, and we are not allowing that; those comments have been removed. On one previous story, we had to close commenting because of this issue. For any story involving a crime or tragic death, we have a clear set of commenting guidelines and we work hard to enforce them consistently. Among other things, our guidelines ask commenters not to blame the VICTIM [my emphasis], and not to suggest that the accident or alleged crime could have been avoided if the VICTIM [my emphasis] had behaved differently." You are switching between describing this 12-year-old girl as an alleged victim (a description with which I agree) and a victim (with no "alleged" qualifier). This is wrong. In all submissions by, as well as by all commenters/repliers, for a situation in which there is no proven harm to have occurred, there is no proven victim, only an alleged victim, since there is only an alleged perpetrator as no crime has been proven to have occurred, only alleged. To allow the use of the unqualified word "victim" without the "alleged" component is contributing to bias (overt for some, probably subconscious for others) favoring the presumption of guilt on the part of Dr. Weinblatt, rather than the presumption of innocence. Unlike some cases in which there is an obvious, unqualified victim (hit-and-run accident, murder, etc.), cases in which no "alleged" need be used, in this case we do not know for sure yet if there actually is a victim. Therefore, any references to this 12-year-old girl as a victim should be rightfully preceded by the qualifier "alleged."


Mon, Dec 19, 2011 : 6:30 p.m.

Tony is so smart, using an example of consensual sex/statutory rape, because if its consensual how could their be a victim! If someone claims rape, and they are found to have lied, there is indeed a victim, its the person being accused of rape. Because you at hold yourself to such high journalistic standards, please explain why the Detroit Free Press does not censor their forums? My guess is that they are smart enough to know when you start picking/publishing/censoring comments you leave yourself vunerable to litigation. On another note; When I play video games, some with mature content, like Call of Duty, in the comfort of my own home, I close my curtains, just for good measure in case a child is walking by. I wouldnt want to have a child walking down the sidewalk peer into my windows and see something innappropriate.


Mon, Dec 19, 2011 : 2:17 a.m.

[These character counts are not accurate. Supposedly, I had 22 characters remaining.] "...think a crime occurred."


Mon, Dec 19, 2011 : 2:15 a.m.

Tony, thank you for your thoughtful reply. My point (and it applies to all of your stories on crime, not just this one, though my comment above was used to exemplify how I feel about this in general) is that, just as there are alleged perpetrators of crimes (and, subsequently, perpetrators of crimes if and when convicted, the "alleged" descriptor no longer being needed), there are alleged victims of crimes (and, subsequently, victims of crimes once a crime has been shown to have occurred). As noted in my original comment, no "alleged" descriptor is needed for a victim when it is obvious a crime has been committed (hit-and-run accident, murder). In other cases, though, until someone has been convicted of a crime, there is no certainty that a crime occurred, so I do not see how one can accurately or fairly (without bias being shown to the accused) call someone a victim, only an alleged victim. Does not describing someone as a victim imply that a crime occurred? If so, then it seems to me that that description of the "victim" is prejudicial to a potential defendant. Until a crime has been shown to have occurred, why not just describe the complainant as an "alleged" victim? I am in no way trying to defend the abilities of commenters to attack an obvious victim (e.g., a hit-and-run victim) or an alleged victim (in your example, a woman who claims she was raped) as having exercised imprudent behavior or is in some other way responsible for their fate. That is an entirely different matter. The use of "alleged" simply would acknowledge that someone is claiming to have been harmed but that the justice system has not yet determined that a crime has been committed. I think it should apply consistently to all of your crime coverage, not just this one; it should be part of your normal guidelines. My feeling on this is independent of whether or not the commenters (or me in particular, or you, or, or the police) think a

Tony Dearing

Sun, Dec 18, 2011 : 6:34 p.m.

Thanks for raising this issue, and I always welcome the opportunity to discuss our moderation guidelines with you. In this case, I don't make quite the same differentiation between victim and "alleged'' victim that you do. For moderation, we apply our guidelines to any situation where a complaint has been filed with police. Let's take the example of a reported rape, for instance. If a rape is reported, we don't allow victim-blaming comments such as "She shouldn't have been walking alone at 3 in the morning.'' Reasonable people would agree that is a cruel and inappropriate remark to direct at a woman who has been raped. There is a possible scenario where sex is consensual, and the woman claims afterward that it wasn't, brings a complaint and the defendant is acquitted at trial. In that case, there never was a victim, and presumably we should have allowed commenters to attack and criticize the woman throughout our coverage. So how do you handle a situation like that? The answer is, guidelines aren't situational. You can't have a hundred guidelines for a hundred situations. You have one set of guidelines, and you apply them consistently. In this case, once a criminal complaint has been filed, we ask our commenters not to blame the person who brought the case while it is being adjudicated. If your point is that in this story, the girl should be referred to as an "alleged victim,'' your point is well-taken. If the question is whether our normal guidelines apply in a situation where our commenters don't think it's clear a crime has occured, my answer is that our guidelines apply if a criminal complaint has been brought, and we will do our best to apply those guidelines consistently.


Sat, Dec 17, 2011 : 5:39 p.m.

At some point, it seems that your guidelines allow criminal cases to be "tried" in the paper. I realize this is done these days because people enjoy having their say. But, when you open up comments to this kind of opinion and censor comments that might point to the victim being responsible, (something that certainly could be raised in court), you are encouraging bias. You need to drop back and ask yourselves, "What is newsworthy about this story?" What do the people of Ann Arbor have a right to know that is available in the public records and what responsibility do the papers have in allowing comments that are based on limited information and fact that could be so damaging to the individuals involved. Does anyone for a moment think the identity of this poor child is not known to her neighbors and friends? I would be surprised if this story was not responsible for helping put limited facts and unknowns out into her high school where she became the center of speculations, some supportive and some unkind. Does anyone for a moment believe this Doctor has not been damaged in his practice before given a chance to defend himself in court? The issue for me is responsible reporting. What do the citizens of Ann Arbor have a right to know and how do we balance this right against privacy concerns, particularly those of a minor? I think knowing that the Dr. was charged in a brief report that did not specify details that are simply allegations at this point would be enough. Anyone that interested could obtain the court records. There is simply no newsworthy purpose served by opening up this kind of story for public comment and speculation at this stage. Your policies should be examined.


Sat, Dec 17, 2011 : 1:09 p.m.

Phyllis makes an excellent point when she says the accuser's rights seem to trump those of the accused in's coverage of this story. Weinblatt's mug shot appears in every article along with the prurient allegations.....and the story has been picked up by the national media, perhaps even internationally. While I understand the need for conversation guidelines to discourage overtly rude, insulting and off-topic comments, I find's rules to be extremely difficult to interpret. I happened to read yesterday's Weinblatt article shortly after it was posted and some of the immediate comments. One comment I thought was particularly well-written was deleted and could not understand why even after carefully re-reading the guidelines. I concur with Phyllis's suggestion that perhaps the comments forums should be completely shut down if readers are not allowed to comment on different angles of stories.


Sat, Dec 31, 2011 : 4:08 a.m.

Very well said!


Sat, Dec 17, 2011 : 2:40 a.m.

You guys totally make up your own rules and "your guidelines" are recreational at best. In reality you delete anything that you personally don't agree with or personally offends you. I have had more posts than can be counted deleted, that you say "violated your guidelines" which is a crock!

Phyllis McDermott

Sat, Dec 17, 2011 : 12:09 a.m.

I completely agree with Mr. Finney's comments above. You state, "They (your rules) are based on the principle that when someone is charged with a crime, the victims are not the ones who should be put on trial in the court of public opinion." This comment seems to igonore the premise of the "presumption of innocence" and conveys the point that the "accuser's" rights trump those of the "accused". Anyone can get arrested for anything. The key here is "conviction" not "charged" or "arrested." Citizens also have many motivations to sign a criminal complaint. Also, it is completely ridiculous and inappropriate for you to use the word, "victim" in this case. The child is an "alleged victim" - she is not a "victim" until it has been proven beyond a reasonable doubt that a cime has been committed. Dominque Strauss Kahn (DSK) might be a crude chauvinist, but he was arrested on various serious charges (rape) that were subsequently dropped after a complete investigation and his "accuser's" story completely falling apart, with numerous lies and other motivations revealed. The man could have been the next President of France. Is the maid still the "victim" - or is she someone who could have made a false accusation? My suggestion, is that you completely shut down these comment forums, because these one-sided rules, etc. do not provide a fiar and balanced means by which citizens can comment on all angles of stories such as these.


Sat, Dec 17, 2011 : 5:51 p.m.

I agree. I would also add that we need to how the public's need to know is balanced against an individual's right to privacy, (particularly those of a child), in responsible reporting. I believe the public has a right to know when people are arrested or charged with crimes. (It is in the public records at that point.) But, I am not sure the public has the same sort of right to engage in speculation about the innocence of guilt of an individual. What public purpose is served by this kind of conversation? I expect more from a paper in terms of how it monitors those types of conversations. I agree with Phyllis, this kind of speculation about a case does not need to be supported with a public forum provided by a newspaper.

Corey Finney

Fri, Dec 16, 2011 : 10:19 p.m.

Congratulations, you've effectively created a one-sided conversation that has no ability to grow. " I believe this man is at fault" " Comment has been deleted" " This guy is sick" " Comment has been deleted" You've made your stance on the issue very clear, and anyone who would dare disagree with you has been silenced. The doctor is to be blamed, and insulted, regardless of guilt. The family will forever be innocent and entirely without any detractors. Well done.

Tony Dearing

Fri, Dec 16, 2011 : 11:02 p.m.

I would like to address this concern for you, but I am trying to locate the two comments you are quoting here as being directed at Howard Weinblatt, and I cannot find them either in this comment thread or in the comment thread on the story we published today. Could you please point me to where you saw them? Thank you.


Fri, Dec 16, 2011 : 9:58 p.m.

"We're also concerned about how little is actually known about what happened..." Yet you have allowed all kinds of speculation about Dr. Weinblatt. then: "Until more details come out, we don't think it's fair to allow commenters to criticize or attack the family based on assumptions about what might have happened." But it's OK to criticize him for looking out of his window, which is about all the detail that can be substantiated at this point.

Tony Dearing

Fri, Dec 16, 2011 : 10:06 p.m.

If you see a comment regarding Dr. Weinblatt that you believe is based on speculation, beyond the limited facts that have been reported so far, please flag that comments as abuse and we will review it.


Fri, Dec 16, 2011 : 6:02 p.m.

Free speech is important, yes, and everyone is completely allowed to hold their own discussions on personal facebook pages, through e-mail, or in person. But news sites such as are able to be viewed by the entire world, and are capable of restricting the comments. The thing about this case is it is a twelve year old girl in Ann Arbor. We can already speculate on her identity based on information regarding her street posted in earlier articles. Her friends, family and teachers have access to these comments. Victim blaming is never okay, even if it is phrased as speculation, and I applaud for respecting her and her family in this difficult time. She is not the one on trial.


Sat, Dec 17, 2011 : 5:59 p.m.

I guess I would like her identity to be protected. You can inform the public that the Dr. was charged. If anyone wants to follow-up, there are public records. A paper doesn't need to allow readers to use its pages (virtual pages) to fan speculation about what happened. That is the purpose of a court trial. The public didn't need to know the details about the situation at this time for any legitimate purpose. I think there is a time for limiting reports and limiting comments.


Fri, Dec 16, 2011 : 9:53 p.m.

In the meantime, they allow complete disrespect for Dr. Weinblatt and his family at this difficult time. He is currently INNOCENT, but his name and reputation have been irretrievably tainted. "Phrased as speculation", comments about the "alleged" perpetrator have done irrepairable harm; why is that OK? Yes, news sites can be viewed by the entire world, but I think in the future she could travel wherever she wanted and still be relatively anonymous, and blameless; he cannot, even if proven not guilty.


Fri, Dec 16, 2011 : 5:20 p.m.

Does the devil's advocate viewpoint have no merit? Are you worried that free speech might offend someone? These are genuine questions. Why are you allowing commenters to put down the defendant, but not the others that are allegedly or potentially to blame?


Fri, Dec 16, 2011 : 4:06 p.m.

On November 2th, 2011 Tony Dearing wrote: "One of the most basic things we've learned about moderation is that we have to have clear policies and enforce them consistently." However this piece begins: "Every now and then, there's a conversation people are aching to have on our site, but what they want to talk about violates our conversation guidelines. So do we let them say whatever they want? Or do we enforce our guidelines?" Even the title, "Why we're applying our regular conversation guidelines to Howard Weinblatt coverage" makes direct reference to the fact that you are NOT applying the regular conversation guidelines consistently for every article.


Fri, Dec 16, 2011 : 4:51 p.m.

Also WADR, you wrote, "In this case, we're sticking with our guidelines." You did NOT write, "Of course we are sticking to our guidelines; we always do."

Tony Dearing

Fri, Dec 16, 2011 : 4:12 p.m.

No, with all due respect, the point we're making here is that in this case, readers have wanted us to override our guidelines because they feel there's an aspect of this story they should be able to discuss, and we're explaining why we have to remain consistent with our guidelines.