Anonymous Comments: The Bane of Online News?

Last Tuesday, MaineToday Media blocked user comments on news stories contained on three of its newspaper websites, including the Portland Press Herald, the Kennebec Journal in Augusta, and the Morning Sentinel in Waterville. In a written statement which has since been removed from the websites, MaineToday Media CEO Richard Connor said that the decision was made after months of “careful consideration and much deliberation.” The ban lasted less than 48 hours, however, with comments enabled on each site by Thursday afternoon.

According to DownEast.com, Connor’s statement said:

[W]hat once served as a platform for civil civic discourse and reader interaction has increasingly become a forum for vile, crude, insensitive, and vicious postings. No story subject seems safe from hurtful and vulgar comments. […] We have a right and an obligation to protect the public, our readers, and the subjects of our stories from such vitriol.

Anonymous Masked Man, photo by Kevin N. MurphySuch comments seem to be an epidemic across the spectrum of online news sites. It’s not just the trolls that present a problem, though; spam is also a growing trend. Potential legal issues come into play, too, with instances of alleged defamation and violation of privacy. With decreasing manpower and funds, the ability to monitor such comments has been increasingly difficult.

The three MaineToday Media newspapers affected by the short-term comment ban have now implemented a new comment management system powered by a service called Intense Debate. The system gives commenters several options to log in, including Facebook, Twitter, and the newspaper’s own website. Staffers can then filter, block, or delete comments by keyword, email address, or IP address.

Another Maine newspaper, the Bangor Daily News, owned by the Bangor Publishing Company, uses a comment management system called Disqus (pronounced “Discuss”). Will Davis, online editor of the newspaper, says that he spends about two hours each day monitoring comments on the site.

“When we implemented this system it made it better almost immediately,” he says. “People when they are commenting under their real names are traditionally a little bit more polite because, obviously, they have their real names attached to it.”

Requiring a reader to use his or her real name and to provide a legitimate email address is a step in the right direction for decreasing distasteful comments. Sherry Devlin, editor of the Missoulian in Montana and blogmistress of the site Missoula Editor, writes:

Anonymity is the problem with online comments. As long as people are able to hide behind nicknames, many online comments are going to be vicious and inappropriate. Cowards can, and do, say anything about anyone. No one can really challenge them, because no one knows who they are. […] If I had the resources to verify every online commenter at Missoulian.com, I would insist that people use their real names. We do so in the print edition of the Missoulian; letters to the editor must be signed – and verified by phone or in person. They are printed only with the writer’s real name. […] We should require no less of our online commenters.

The Buffalo News requires readers to provide their real names and their location, which appear next to their comments. They must also provide a phone number where their identity can be verified. “We hope to raise the level of discourse by providing a measure of accountability,” said online editor Brian Connolly.

Damon Kieskow, a contributor to Poynter Online, includes that paper in his roundup of comment moderation strategies by various news organization websites. Some of the examples include:

  1. Outsourced moderators: NPR announced a few days ago that it would outsource comment moderation to allow its staffers more time to focus on the news.
  2. Selective ban: The Minneapolis Star Tribune institutes a selective comments ban on certain stories which are more likely to incite nasty comments.
  3. Comprehensive ban: KSL-TV and The Maui News have banned reader comments altogether, at least for now.
  4. Community moderators: The Huffington Post gives moderator status to certain readers, while other sites allow readers to “vote up” or “vote down” the visual prominence of comments.
  5. Subscriber differentiation: The Wall Street Journal lets readers choose to view only comments posted by paid subscribers, “on the theory that the most dedicated readers might make for a more serious conversation,” Kieskow explains.

Although it may seem easiest for news organizations to just remove commenting features from their websites, many in the industry can see the value of finding a way to work it all out. “It’s always been worth trying to figure out how we can bring the community into a conversation so that journalism becomes a two-way conversation: The journalist does his or her work and the community begins to add to it and respond to it,” says Joe Michaud, the president of Mainetoday.com from 1995 until 2008, who now works as a consultant.

Source: “News Sites Rethink Anonymous Online Comments,” The New York Times, 04/12/10
Source: “Maine newspaper restores online comments, but are they less vicious?,” Missoula Editor, 10/23/10
Source: “MaineToday Media Web Comments Suddenly Cut Off,” DownEast.com, 10/20/10
Source: “Three Maine newspapers restore online comments,” Bangor Daily News, 10/22/10
Source: “Maine newspapers stop accepting online comments,” Bangor Daily News, 10/21/10
Source: “MaineToday Media Shuts Down Online Comment Section,” The Maine Public Broadcasting Network, 10/20/10
Source: “Portland Press Herald Drops Reader Comments in Response to ‘Vicious Postings’,” Poynter Online, 10/20/10
Source: “MaineToday’s Online Comment Ban Generates Plenty of Comment,” The Maine Public Broadcasting Network, 10/20/10
Image by Kevin N. Murphy, used under its Creative Commons license.

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