My local daily, the Salem News, has added itself to the growing list of news organizations that are requiring real names for online comments in order to root out the hateful speech that too often mars such forums. It’s the right move, and one I adopted about a year ago. Editor David Olson explains:
If you write a guest column for the newspaper, you have to use your real name. If you are quoted in a story, we use your real name — no anonymous sources allowed. And if you write a letter to the editor, not only do you have to sign your name, you have to give us an address and phone number so we can check to make sure you are who you say you are.
Online commenters, until now, have had to do none of this.
Like Media Nation, the News will rely on the honor system for the honest majority and intuition (and informants!) for rooting out those who adopt fake names. That’s definitely the way to go. Last July the Sun Chronicle of Attleboro unveiled a real-names policy that required people to turn over their credit-card information if they wanted to comment. If you poke around, you’ll see that the paper’s website has pretty much become a comment-free zone.
This blog post by Howard Owens, editor and publisher of the Batavian, remains the definitive explanation as to why real names should be required.
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Congratulations to The Salem News and David Olson for what I hope is an accelerating and necessary trend that ought to be a no-brainer for all respectable news organizations.
When I worked for the News back in the pre-Internet days of the 1980s and early 1990s, I was very uneasy with what was known to the public as Speakout and to many of us in the newsroom as Call-in for Cowards.
Those tape-recorded, transcribed phone messages were, in retrospect, a comparatively mild precursor to online comments, and they were heavily edited. They also appeared on the editorial page where they were clearly labeled as opinion. Nevertheless, they were still pretty freewheeling and frequently took cheap shots. They were also immensely popular and any suggestion that they be curbed would be dismissed out of hand.
I perceive, Dan, that the level of the conversation has risen dramatically since you’ve started requiring those who comment to identify themselves. I’m hoping this post bears that out.
The North Andover-based “Lawrence” Eagle Tribune still runs anonymous opinion bursts on its editorial page. It’s amazing how many of them resemble the fulminations of right-wing zealots on the radio.
Good for the News. And it has a standing no-anonymous-source policy? My God, honest, ethical journalism. There oughta be a Pulitzer for News Policy.
I hope that they guard those credit card numbers really well.
This is a law suit waiting to happen.
The comments sections of most newspaper sites are beyond embarrassing. Other than the Globe (using aggressive anti-troll tactics) I haven’t noticed much of an effort to stop the nonsense.
I would imagine what the Globe is doing is costly so they must actually value the potential of their site enough to protect it. The others likely have more pressing concerns, like staying afloat.
I live in Salem that has at least four papers/web papers (SALEM NEWS, SALEM GAZETTE, SALEM PATCH, BOSTON GLOBE NORTH OF BOSTON) that have active reporters covering Salem. I hope that each one of them allows public correspondence. It will change the dialogue.
It’s pretty obvious that allowing anonymous, unregistered commenting defaces otherwise great news websites. What is most amazing is how long it is taking some of those news organizations to realize what is totally obvious to everyone else.
Sure, you’ll get fewer comments, but they’ll mostly have some degree of interesting content in them. Is the goal to maximize the number of comments on a website, or to maximize the quality of the website?
I beg to differ. In New Haven, the only place public school teachers, cops, and custodians can speak freely about public matters without fear of being fired is in the comments section. I do agree about the need to prevent these sections from becoming cesspools. Perhaps the answer is putting the onus on those of us who edit to make sure no nasty, libelous, profane, hateful, or otherwise polluting comment gets published. The reason we don’t like allowing anonymity on these boards is that they produce a bad result, bad outcomes. We can control that if we invest the time by pre-screening all comments and keeping the discussion civil. But we eliminate the only possible avenue of diverse, knowledgeable, democratic debate about some important issues in our community if we adopt some of these new policies cited here.
@Paul: There’s no question it takes a lot of work to have civil, useful comments and anonymity co-exist. You put in the work. I decided I wasn’t willing to do that. And there’s no way the Salem News, the Boston Globe, the New Haven Register, et al. are going to do it.
I know of no blog or news site with civil discourse among anonymous people.
@Paul: I don’t buy your argument for a minute. If the leadership of New Haven’s public schools and police department is so poor or paranoid that your website is the only place employees feel they can speak freely without fear of recrimination, then that sounds like a hell of a story that I hope you are pursuing instead of wasting your precious time editing comments from anonymous malcontents. Even with all our wonderful technology, there’s still nothing like real reporters with real bullshit detectors talking to real people and using their analytical skills to differentiate the kernels of legitimate news worth pursuing from the chaff of personal agendas.
I think that’s a good point Victor. I don’t see it as an either-or. Yes we do write about the clamping down on free speech. We do real reporting. But I also think there’s no substitute for allowing a free forum for discussion. I also believe that this situation (muzzled public employees) is far more widespread than just in New Haven.
As a former staffer at the Salem News, I can concur with Victor on the abuse on the Call-in for Cowards fiasco (which occurred under previous ownership, I might add). Often, it was the same drunk dialer who just happened to have the same hateful agenda as our publisher at the time, so his rants got printed. But our readers had no way of knowing it was the same whack-job. It simply was signed “Caller from Salem” or something equally innocuous. The really weird part is that the Salem News, at the same time, had a policy of signing editorials. Every single one. It was one of the few honorable policies instituted during that regime, and one I’d like to see implemented at every newspaper. Edit page editors and editorial writers are great at sounding high-minded and superior, but they often work anonymously as well. I understand they represent “the official stance” of the paper, but I’d venture that more often than not their simply a mouthpiece for the publisher, not the newspaper or magazine as a whole. Clearly, a newspaper can’t take the journalistic “high road” on anonymous comments when the paper’s “voice” on the editorial page does the same.
@Brion: I can go either way on signed editorials. The argument against signing them is that they truly represent the position of the newspaper, not necessarily of the person writing it. At smaller papers where I’ve worked, the editorial position is a rough consensus among the editor, the publisher and maybe a few other people. At larger papers, it may be the position of the editorial board. I’ve written plenty of editorials, and though I’ve never written one I disagreed with entirely, I’ve written many that would have come out quite different in terms of nuance and style if I weren’t writing on behalf of a group. I wouldn’t have wanted my name on it.
I understand your point, Dan, but I feel just as strongly that newspapers can’t have it both ways (much like I feel that police officers and teachers and other public srevants don’t have any more free speech rights than workers in the private sector). If you’re going to require commentators to identify themselves, in the name of “journalistic integrity,” then editorials should be held to the same standard. In that vein, I don’t think any editorial writer ought to be compelled to write an opinion they don’t agree with. It should be like Supreme Court decisions, which, while we know they’re written by clerks, still have the signature of the justice. Just my two cents … 😉
@Dan: The problem with unsigned editorials is that some publishers run their content across each of their publications. The Salem News editorials also appear in the Gloucester Daily Times, the Newburyport Daily News, and the The Eagle-Tribune. It’s a mess, since each editor has his or her biases, yet often a single paper (or website) will publish conflicting unsigned editorials, and it’s impossible for readers to know what the true position of the paper is.
Moreover, each paper tends to cater to the assumed biases of the local audience. That leads to some surreal moments, such as a piece presumably written by the Gloucester editors castigating fisheries officials in the ET, which insofar as I know has zero commercial fisherman. Cue the mass head-scratchings and the “say wha???”
@Brion and @Mike: Once the police or teachers union votes on an issue — say, a contract — then it has a collective position on that issue. I could make the case that a signed editorial isn’t really an editorial — just one person’s opinion. And then you’ve lost the institutional voice of the paper in the community.
But … does anyone buy that anymore? Did they ever? I once asked a class of freshmen why they thought editorials were unsigned. The winner, hands-down, was that the people who wrote them were afraid to identify themselves.
I always liked what the Weekly Standard did. Its editorials carried a tagline that said, “David Tell, for the Editors.” That’s the best solution I’ve seen to letting us know who wrote it, that others also had a say, and that his words were intended to represent the position of the magazine, not his (or not just his) own.
The most compelling reason to require commenters to disclose their real identity is to combat against “astroturfing”. This is the practice of paying people to make comments that will give the impression that there is a grassroots movement behind a particular point of view. George Monbiot has an excellent post on The Guardian’s website about this practice. Is that comment really from a concerned citizen, or is it actually somebody being paid to express that position to further the goals of corporation or a candidate or a government?
Given enough money and motivation, astroturfers are sure to find some way around identity requirements, but let’s at least make it a bit more difficult for them.
Publishing letters to the editor and online comments is a privilege offered by newspapers be they print or online pubs. It is therefore the publication’s right to decide how it offers that privilege.
At the Duxbury Clipper we sign our editorials. However, I always felt that an unsigned editorial meant this is the opinion or official stance of the paper, rather than just the editor. For example, I have a blog, and I’ll sometimes have opinions will post a thought in the blog when I want it to represent only my opinion, rather than the official position of the paper. I’m curious how other people feel about that, especially at smaller weeklies (like the Clipper) where the editor is also the reporter.
@Dan: I recognize that what you present could be an issue: when the editorial is signed, is that the individual’s viewpoint or the institution’s?
But the very real alternative is what is happening at the various CHNI sites, where unsigned editorials are published in the same space that are in direct conflict with each other. For the reader, that’s not only not useful, it’s the antithesis of useful.
I write letters to the editor quite frequently. Yesterday was a rude awakening for me as I was abusively accosted by a local person as I was picking up my mail at the post office. Unbelievable language was thrust upon me by this person as he expressed his distain about a letter which I had written recently. As I feared for my safety, I called the police when I got home and was interviewed by a detective about what had transpired – for the record.
Fear and verbal retribution shouldn’t be the by-product of a letter to the editor.
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