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Should Web site comments be anonymous?

March 29, 2010

In a column Sunday, Connie Schultz with the Cleveland Plain Dealer raises the question that many newspapers have grappled with as they’ve worked to build an online community – should people be allowed to comment anonymously on newspaper Web sites?

When newspapers began developing their Web presences, and expanding the ability of people to comment on content, the de facto rule for most was that people would be able to weigh in without being held to the same accountability standards that most papers employ for their print edition.

Most newspapers that I know of require letters to the editor to be signed, and some sort of personal verification information – address, telephone number – to be provided so that the paper can confirm that the person is who she says she is. That level of accountability hasn’t left most newspapers with a lack of signed opinions to offer on their editorial pages, and the practice seems to bring more authority and depth to what a person is saying.

But on a Web site, those rules have for the large part fallen by the wayside. Most sites including the Messenger-Inquirer require a name and e-mail address be provided, but there is typically no confirmation process. Those who want to comment are given a chance to put their name by their words, but there’s no requirement. The result is that most comments are left anonymously.

And according to the Plain Dealer’s Schultz, that’s had a negative impact on the public discourse and the community newspapers have tried to create.

From her column

Most news organizations allow anonymous comments on their Web sites. Many, if not most, journalists oppose the practice. Some of us deplore the hypocrisy of requiring that letters to the editor have verifiable identities, addresses and phone numbers, while allowing anyone with a keyboard and an e-mail address to post the kind of stuff they’d never say if they had to provide their names.

It makes for many an ugly day, discouraging thoughtful discussions and repelling readers who don’t have the stomach for the daily dose of vitriol. The Plain Dealer’s John Kroll leads the heroic effort to keep the site civil, but it’s an ongoing challenge.

Some argue that allowing anonymity is a way of outing the bigots among us. But reading multiple posts, often by the same person using a variety of identities, amplifies voices and exaggerates numbers. The haters are small in number, but they are tenacious, and the resulting echo chamber fuels a growing climate of fear and rage born of false impressions.

Several months ago, the Messenger-Inquirer began running a weekly feature in Sunday’s Perspective section called “Back Talk” which offered a selection of comments from our Web site during the past week. It was a way to tie in the discussion that’s going on online with what’s appearing in our print edition, and received some positive comments.

Others brought up that same issue of the double-standard for Web site comments vs. letters to the editor, and it was hard to offer a justifiable response for how the two differ, and why different standards apply.

We’ve dropped the feature for now after a short run, and that was due in part that it was sometimes difficult to find the kind of thought-provoking comments that warranted repeating in our print edition. Some of the comments made for good theater, and there’s never a lack of back-and-forth on issues, but most didn’t fit the standards I would apply to what appears in our print edition – the ability to be verified and a common civility.

That’s not saying there can’t be or isn’t valuable debate and discourse occurring on newspaper sites through comments posted to stories, but that often those instances get lost in the noise and clamor produced by many who are posting.

Schultz notes that she turned to Facebook, where folks who comment have an identity, and that the discussion has benefited from that lack of anonymity.

So what are your thoughts – should comments to stories on the Messenger-Inquirer Web site continue to be anonymous, or should we begin requiring those who comment to stand by their opinions with their names?



One Comment
  1. anonymous permalink
    March 29, 2010 4:01 pm

    I’d comment on this, but then everybody would know who I was.

Comments are closed.

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