Online forums: anonymity versus civility
Updated 4:05 pm, Sunday, March 4, 2012
Reading an article was once a largely a solitary action. One could read the piece and perhaps share the information with their family and friends later.
These days, thanks to globalization, the technology boom and social media, readers can share their reaction to an article the second they finish the last sentence. Depending on the website, readers can comment behind an online alias or are required to post a "real" identity.
Anonymous commenting has become an issue for readers as well as media professionals. Do editors and publishers allow anonymous comments to promote more discussion? Do they require using real names so readers have ownership of what they say? Or do they simply hire staff to police each and every comment?
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Readers weigh in
New Canaan resident Betty Lovastik sees both sides of the issue. In some instances, anonymity can lend itself to vitriolic comments.
However, some readers would rather not reveal themselves for safety reasons. Lovastik thinks it should be up to the editors, publishers and reporters to create guidelines for these situations.
"This is a great topic and reminds me of a relatively new term called `cyberbullying,'" Lovastik said. "People may feel smug when they can remain anonymous and say things that they would never say face-to-face or if their true identity was known. On the other hand, there are people who may feel threatened if their true identity were known possibly due to the nature of information they wish to share and for this reason they wish to remain anonymous," Lovastik said. "The bottom line is that the editors need communication guidelines that everyone must follow. Are we afraid to exercise our free speech? If so, we should ask for a reporter to investigate our information and communicate it in an unbiased fashion."
New Canaan resident Eloise Killeffer questions whether or not it is a problem that can be solved.
"The advent of online news services like Patch (a local online media outlet owned by AOL) has opened the door to instant dialog that was never possible with the print media, where the lag time was days or even weeks," she said. "Commentary online and letters to the editor are now two different creatures and have their own rules. Online commentary generally permits anonymity, whereas letters to the editor require full identification and withholding a writer's name is a very special concession by the editor. When Patch first began, there was a level of civility that pertained with or without full name disclosure and it was rare indeed for a comment to be removed because it was inappropriate. Sadly, the level of discourse has devolved to a point that postings are all too often ad hominem attacks on either previous posters or on other persons. Either way, these are likely to be done under cover of anonymity. I support requiring full disclosure of the writer's name, but it is difficult to enforce, since people can use false names and there is no way to check."
Resident Fred Chang believes it is OK to use a pseudonym as long as those people are not making personal attacks.
"When it comes to personal attacks or remarks directed at an individual by his or her real name, then those kinds of things are inappropriate," Chang said. "If someone wants to reveal his or her name, that is that person's choice."
Experts weigh in
Editors and media experts around the world have different viewpoints and solutions for the issue. Many websites and news outlets are requiring readers to link their Facebook accounts with the messages they post about an article. Some big name outlets, such as The New York Times and Hearst Media, don't require readers to use their real names.
"The key to a lot of this is cost. It is possible to monitor this but it becomes very expensive," Dufresne said.
He explained how some companies like The New York Times have an entire staff dedicated to policing comments, but many of publications try to do it in a cost effective way.
"They wanted to do it on the cheap. They want the benefit of the open web culture. That's where they get into trouble," he added.
Some publications have a self-reporting system where other readers can report or complain about other posts, but Dufresne believes there should be a standard with a set of requirements, though he does admit it would be difficult to perfect.
"Ideally what you have are some standards that are based on requirements concerning things like language," he said. "Language is somewhat easy to police. But there are a lot of ways to be racist, sexist libelist without profanity. Those things are a lot more subtle. Perfectly non-profane language can still do a lot of damage," he said. "It's kind of a fast-moving target. A lot of people have tried different ways to deal with it. I think ultimately you are trying to create ownership behind an identity so that people who post can stand behind it. My sense is that when the forums are anonymous they often deteriorate into some nasty stuff."
Often, even if they are allowed to use a pseudonym, readers must reveal their identities to the publication. Dufresne believes that if people do not want to put any sort of ownership behind their comments, then they do not deserve to be published.
"Call me old school, but if they can't even reveal themselves privately to the company, then I don't believe they have a right to have their opinion published," he said.
Roman Cebulski, a media teacher at New Canaan High School, can understand both sides of the issue and believes, especially in New Canaan, that some people may prefer to remain anonymous because of the small-town factor.
Cebulski discussed a hypothetical situation in which a store owner may be reluctant to voice his opinion on an issue if his name is attached because of possible retribution.
"I see both sides. I think people probably shouldn't hide behind comments but at the same time, I can understand when people want to be part of a discussion but choose not be because they are afraid of the relapse if they are in a small community," Cebulski said.
David McCumber, editor of The Advocate and Greenwich Time and editorial director of the Hearst Connecticut Media Group (which includes the New Canaan News), explained the challenges of finding the right balance in a forum. The New Canaan News and the rest of the Hearst Connecticut Media Group requires readers to register with the website before commenting. However, readers can use an alias that will appear next to their comments.
"Our comments have become much better since we do require them to register," McCumber said. "Even though the names are not necessarily visible, that has added a lot in terms of stability. Occasionally people do go over the line and that is why comments are sometimes taken down," McCumber said. "I don't know if this is the last iteration. We are looking for a good climate for interaction. We want to be sort of the facilitator for community conversation and I think that is a very good role for us to have."
McCumber explained that Hearst is always looking at ways to improve the comment sections and that Facebook may be part of that initiative.
"I think one of the things we are looking at is having people comment through Facebook. I believe that is something that Hearst is looking at group wide," he added. "I think certainly people need to be careful about their private information and that anonymity can be great, but having a real identity attached to a comment tends to somewhat civilize the conversation."
Rich Hanley, the program director for Quinnipiac University's graduate journalism program, believes the days of anonymity are behind us now.
"Discussion boards and comment fields linked to news stories were initially offered as a means to advance participation in the democratic process," Hanley said. "Practice proved otherwise and that's why news organizations are constantly seeking to balance the desire for open forums with the reality that comments are a magnet for people whose level of civil discourse is below that of the gutter. The culture of anonymity developed when a relatively small community used the Internet and it was possible for members to police themselves. Those days are over, so a more mature approach is required."
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