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Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Democracy. Right.

Today's episode of Little Miss Know-it-All: Wouldn't it be great if people used their real names, even though we encourage them to be anonymous and take no responsibility for the things they post on our website?

I really, really hate "reader comments" on newspaper articles. It's hard for me to say that, because comments are the best thing about some blogs. For some reason, comment sections on mainstream media sites are a wretched hive of scum and villainy.

The Paper of Record's technology columnist, Matthew Ingram, mentions this briefly in yesterday's -- well, I guess it's a blog post. (The Paper of Record is totally "with it" and "groovy", so they have blogs now.) He says it would be nice if people used their real names. Then he quotes the idiot commenters, whether they use their real names or not, and whether they have anything to say or not. I guess that doesn't matter. The point is that they said it on the Paper of Record's website. Got it? The Paper of Record is TOTALLY COOL. You can write any stupid thing you want on their site. It's all about democracy, or so Mr. Ingram says.

To be honest, I don't know why anyone would use his real name on the Paper of Record's site. Why bother, when you can say what you're REALLY thinking and never be held accountable? These comment sections are full of bile. They almost never provide any extra information that would help me to function in a free society. You'll recall that that is the purpose of journalism.

The other day, someone who works for a national Canadian news organization told me that her employer allows uncensored comments because people want to have a voice. (Kids today!) While I certainly applaud their efforts, I cannot help but think that it is a failed experiment.

No reporter at the Paper of Record would interview someone who insisted on being identified as Great Southwest or Some Guy. It wouldn't even occur to the reporter to suggest it to his editor.

Reporters put a lot of effort into getting good quotes and checking on sources. That's because they are responsible for the things they publish or broadcast. Anonymous comments are usually stupid, and they're impossible to verify. They don't suddenly become news just because they're posted on the Internet.

In fact, I'm not aware of many news organizations that publish anonymous letters to the editor. CBC doesn't broadcast anonymous TalkBack or put anyone on air who won't give his name. Why would the standards be any different for cbc.ca?

I'd like it if news sites made it easier to track who is blogging about the news. CNN is already doing this, and it seems to be working well. Blogs are often anonymous and even more often stupid, but they have a few things going for them:

  1. They're not hosted on the Paper of Record's site: idiots don't get the satisfaction of having their offensive ideas published without editing on a website that should be respectable and respected.

  2. They require some -- not much, but some -- responsibility from the people who write them. Usually, a blog is maintained over time, and the writer takes some pride in it.

  3. They're easy to follow. In fact, people might be more likely to blog about issues in the news if they knew they would get traffic through the Paper of Record or the CBC. Some bloggers might even want to write about the paper every day.

  4. They're easy to ignore if they're stupid: you just don't visit them.

  5. They usually provide links, which news sites often covet.

It seems to me that this would be a better way to "track the conversation" about news stories, without opening the newspaper's publisher to libel and copyright issues. It wouldn't just be one conversation; it would be many. We could track entire threads instead of seeing all comments in the order they were posted to the site.

Perhaps I should suggest this to Mr. Ingram. I wonder if the Technology columnists Google themselves as often as the Arts columnists do.

8 comments:

Reluctant Blogger said...

Oh yes, I agree. The cloak of anonymity gives people the courage to say all sorts of outrageous things they would never otherwise say and they don't have to go to the trouble of verifying anything at all.

I think you are right re the blog approach. If someone has a blog, in a sense that is at least some reflection of them, a place you can go back to to ask them to clarify or provide evidence or whatever. They are less anonymous even if you do not know their name or much about them.

We had to abandon anonymous suggestions on the ski club site because they got so negative and petty. People were just trying to be smartarses essentially.

scribe said...

I've noticed that no matter what the subject, be it political or about Brangelina, there are always horrific comments directed (mostly) at Obama's race or some such nonsense having nothing at all to do with the subject at hand. I wouldn't mind at all if real names were required.

Gifted Typist said...

Hmmmm, the paper of record publishes unsigned editorials, doesn't it?

Megan said...

Editorials are different, though. They're supposed to be the newspaper's official positions. They're not like letters to the editor.

Now that I think about it, though, one of the northern newspapers often publishes anonymous letters. I don't think highly of that, either.

Anonymous said...

If you're talking about us (NNSL) we rarely publish anonynous letters. I can probably count on one hand the number of times we have in the past six years I have been here. If we do it is to protect the author from retribution from an employer. However, we always know the identity of the people who write us.

Guy with the pen (jk) Chris.

Megan said...

Nope, not you.

Anonymous said...

Ok, well anyway, there is some insight into why we do it when we do, although rarely. But I agree unsigned letters are suspicious.

Chris

Megan said...

I think it's great that you publish a range of opinions on a variety of topics without handing anonymity out too freely. This can be a bit of a balancing act, but you seem to have found a good way to handle it.