October 21, 2012

Press Herald changing online comment system

To keep discussions civil, readers wishing to comment will be required to attach names to posts.

By ANGIE MUHS

The online news landscape has seen a lot of changes in the past five years, but one thing has remained the same: Readers love to comment.

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These mostly anonymous debates, wisecracks and fusillades posted at the bottom of news stories have long been the source of much frustration and debate for editors. News organizations have struggled with how to best maintain a civil environment while allowing readers to engage with each other to discuss the issues of the day.

At pressherald.com, kjonline.com and onlinesentinel.com, we are taking another step in the evolution of how to manage comments. As of 8 a.m. Monday, readers wishing to comment on news stories will be required to log in using a Facebook account.

We chose Facebook because most people use their real names when they log in to it. It's an easily accessible, free system, and one that many of our readers likely already participate in.

We realize that for some people, this will be a big change. It's one we made after studying industry trends and having a lot of discussions internally about what we valued and what we no longer wanted to see in our comments online.

At their best, comment threads can foster robust debate among readers, and help capture a sense of community. Readers may share their own experiences, and that perspective can lend valuable depth to someone's understanding of an issue, or perhaps challenge their beliefs. We want to continue to strive for that kind of experience, especially on issues that affect readers' lives.

Like other news sites that have started using Facebook for reader comments, our rationale is simple: Put your name with your comment.

Much has been written about how online anonymity has fueled an increasingly harsh level of discourse, with people more likely to be abusive if they don't face the social consequences of being associated with those sentiments.

We think that it's possible to disagree without being disagreeable. Many of our regular commenters do manage to do that; sadly, others don't.

What we've noticed is that those who most often resort to name-calling and personal attacks are those who are almost without exception using pseudonyms.

If you don't want to put your name on your thoughts, perhaps what you have to say is not that useful, thoughtful or kind.

We're often asked why authors of letters to the editor are required to provide their full names and hometowns, while commenters did not have to. It's a question that, quite frankly, we didn't have a good answer for. Hence, another reason for the effort to link comments with the commenter's identity.

Tens of thousands of comments are posted each month on pressherald.com. About one-fifth of our commenters already use a Facebook account to log in.

We realize that this policy change will mean that stories will have fewer comments. We hope that the accountability of having one's name attached to one's sentiments will mean that those comments will be more substantive and civil.

At the same time, we know this is not a silver bullet. Some readers can (and will) create a phony Facebook persona. Our staff will be on the lookout for that. We're also still going to moderate comments before they're posted.

Some news sites, such as The New York Times and the Christian Science Monitor, have opted to only post comments on certain stories. That's something we're also likely to embrace, choosing to focus our comment discussions on topics where public discourse is likely to add something to the conversation.

Those who defend the use of screen names have cited the hypothetical whistleblowers, who might be commenting anonymously to pass on news tips that would bring retaliation. For those readers, there is a link on each news story where they could email editors privately, and anonymously if they choose.

Will this policy change make everyone happy? Of course not. Is this the final word on the subject? No. We expect the world of online commenting will continue to evolve, and we will strive to make sure our policies evolve as well.

I welcome your thoughts. Comment here, reach me via Twitter at @amuhs, or email me at amuhs@mainetoday.com.

Angie Muhs is the Press Herald's executive editor for interactive.

 

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