Newspapers debate over whether Web site comments can be anonymous
By JOLI DOORNINK
Two years ago, Tom Hawley, editor of the Baldwin Bulletin, faced a decision. He had received an angry letter to the editor about a story that he had written, and had to decide whether or not to run it in the paper.
After discussing the problem with a few trusted friends, he decided to run the letter.
"It created more controversy than you can shake a stick at," said Hawley.
The story was about a local Muslim family who had received a Habitat for Humanity house.
There was controversy in the community as to why this family in particular had received the house, when there were so many families native to Baldwin who were in need. There was also a question as to the way in which the family was qualified to receive the house.
The story created a volley of letters to the editor on both sides of the issue. Hawley felt obligated to print letters from both sides after printing one. The argument got pretty heated, but he was able to screen the letters for any inappropriate language or libel.
That careful screening of letters to the editor is much harder these days, as the ability to comment about stories anonymously online is on the rise.
Jeff Holmquist, the managing editor of the New Richmond News, sees the many difficulties of online comments.
"A lot of newspapers are struggling with that feature because when a person comments, it's an anonymous comment. So, someone can spout off and not be constrained by moral or ethical issues," Holmquist said.
In fact, in a 2008 survey conducted by the Reynolds Journalism Institute & Associated Press Managing Editors, it was found that 64% of the newspaper editors surveyed thought that it was a bad idea that a website does not require a person to divulge their identity when commenting on stories. Only 40% of the public thought it was a bad idea.
Is more moderation the answer? According to an editorial article published in the Toronto Star, the author believes that the Star should step up moderator guidelines. While the newspaper does try to screen comments, many still read like ignorant rants. The author says that "clearly, the Star should also consider whether our guidelines go far enough."
Many times, comments launch into off-topic discussions. "Sometimes, people will wander off the topic or post things that have nothing to do with the story. It may be obscene, offensive, or racist," Holmquist said.
When comments turn personal, human nature can be displayed at its worst.
April Branum experienced this first-hand. According to Kelly McBride, an Ethics Group Leader at the Poynter Institute, in her article titled "Dialogue or Diatribe?", Branum experienced an onslaught of nasty comments from online readers.
Barnum, being a big woman, did not realize that she was pregnant with her son until two days before his birth. When a story was published in The Orange County (Calif.) Register about Barnum and the birth of her son, "online readers were unforgiving and cruel," said McBride.
According to McBride, users made many "fat jokes" about Branum, and the comment thread launched out of control. "Another person claimed she ate Krispy Kremes all day, another that fast food was her every meal. Not true and not true," she said.
Someone even logged in and made nasty comments back to the others under Branum's own name, causing the stereotype of the "obese, lazy, and vulgar woman" to escalate, McBride said.
According to McBride's article, Barnum wishes she hadn't gone to the newspaper at all, and urges those with stories to stay away from them.
How should newspapers control this problem?
According to Debra Hale-Shelton of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, in her article, "Blogs allow for venting, but liability is a concern," some editors moderate every posting, and will remove entire posts of a part of it is libelous. She uses Frank Lockwood, an editor for www.arkansasonline.com, as an example. She said that he won't put anything up for even a moment that contains libelous or profane language.
Some sites, however, such as the New Richmond News, are not moderated quite as closely.
"We do as much monitoring as we can and we take down non-factual posts," Holmquist said. However, "it still raises ethical questions about why we allow anonymous posts on a website."
It is almost alarming how quickly comments can turn personal.
For instance, in a story about a man sentenced in a prostitution incident on the New Richmond News website, the conversation turned to a discussion about the New Richmond Police Department. Disagreements occurred, leading commenters to get personal.
For instance, a user by the name of "David S" attacked another user's spelling errors, saying, "And, I like your spelling of 'victimless' with a 'u' instead of the usual 'i'. Was 3rd grade the best 4 years of your life or would that have been 5th grade?"
The comment section on The New Richmond News website lists in its terms and conditions, "Although we do not have any obligation to monitor this board, we reserve the right at all times to check this board and to remove any information or materials that are unlawful, threatening, abusive, libelous, defamatory, obscene, vulgar...and to disclose any information necessary to satisfy the law, regulation, or government request."
They also provide an area for users to flag offensive comments.
In an article titled "How readers can help moderate comments," Gary Graca, the Editor in Chief of The Michigan Daily, says that newspapers usually don't have enough people to moderate all the comments on every story, and says that readers have a duty to help by flagging inappropriate comments.
New Richmond News does that, so do they have the right idea, or should comments be even more monitored?
There is no universal answer to this ethical question. Each news organization has the right to decide for itself how to screen online comments.
The St. Paul Pioneer Press uses much the same system as The New Richmond News. They use an online forum called Topix.net, and they simply urge people to "be polite." They also provide a link to their terms of service, and say, "Inappropriate posts may be removed by the moderator."
However, this doesn't seem to steer users away from making hurtful comments.
For instance, in a comment section for a story titled "'Snoopy,' 'Linus' characters vandalized in Sleepy Eye," among several other derogatory and personal comments, one user simply said, "Those damn cheeseheads. We need to close the border."
In a world where you can find almost anything on the web, how closely should online comment sections be monitored? Unfortunately, there is no one right answer, and journalists and newspapers continue to struggle with this ethical dilemma.