A little more than a month ago, I wrote a column in which I criticized and defended our online comments feature, all in the same space. I was hoping that if I encouraged a more civil tone and told readers how to police the comments themselves, we could raise the discussion to a more responsible level.
I was wrong.
So, two weeks ago, I pulled the plug on the comments, and the reaction has been mixed. When personally contacted (via the phone, e-mail or my personal Facebook account) the response was overwhelmingly in support of my decision. But on our Optic website poll, a majority said they opposed discontinuing the comments feature.
The difference between those two samplings of opinion is obvious: identification vs. anonymity.
And, frankly, the biggest reason why I decided to discontinue the comments was the shroud of anonymity that surrounds it.
Anonymity allows people to say what they want without being held accountable for what they say. And that led to some of the most irresponsible commentary I’ve ever read.
As I stated in my previous column on March 26, I have a deep-seated belief in free speech. And, of course, that includes offensive speech. But I have a newspaper to run, and allowing verbal assaults to take place is not part of the equation.
Two weeks ago, I was in Roswell for a press association meeting, and began reading the online comments on the Optic website in my hotel room. First I read a series of cheap shots directed at a teacher who had the courage to speak his mind during an Optic interview. Writers criticized and degraded him in a way that turned my stomach.
I also noticed that our policy of turning off the comments feature on obituaries and on criminal justice reports was being usurped. Finding the comments turned off on a story about charges being dropped against a Las Vegas resident, a reader went to another story where the comments were on, and interjected that the subject of the other story was indeed guilty, guilty, guilty.
I began to realize that the only way to manage this online feature responsibly was to invest a huge amount of newsroom time into monitoring and deleting inappropriate comments, on pretty much a 24/7 schedule. Yes, there are other ways to approach it, but all options seemed to require a great investment of time that I’m unwilling to give. We are, after all, first and foremost, a newspaper.
We don’t run anonymous letters. And we don’t build stories off anonymous sources. We allow all responsible sides to have their say, but they have to be willing to put themselves and their reputations out there in order to have a say in this newspaper. Why change that for our online edition?
Of course, anonymity is a staple on the Internet, and that contributes to our public discourse these days. People make baseless accusations without being held accountable. It’s as though respect for one’s opponent is no longer valued. It’s certainly not necessary.
Newspapers, on the other hand, should hold people accountable. It’s what we do. It’s what we need to continue to do.
Here in Las Vegas, there are plenty of people willing to put their names on their thoughts, even when their words are offensive. In April alone, I ran 35 letters to the editor (only six of which were “mil gracias” letters, so the rest were speaking directly to community issues). Try to find that many letters in another community newspaper our size. We are a particularly outspoken community.
That’s the upside. The downside is that other comparable newspaper websites don’t have the kind of “debates” that we were having via our comments features.
Maybe someday we’ll come up with a better approach, but for now, we’ll stick with the standards we apply to our newspaper: No more anonymous comments.
Tom McDonald is editor and publisher of the Optic. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 505-425-6796.