Anonymous online comments draw fire

I’ve been around the internet and newspapers long enough to remember what a fundamental shift it was when we began to foster conversations both with and among our readers about the stories we produce.

Seems at least some of those conversations weren’t all they were cracked up to be.

Recently, a number of media outlets have moved to either ban completely, or at the least limit, anonymous commenting on the stories posted to their respective websites.

Canada’s largest newspaper, the Toronto Star, is the most recent to join these ranks.

“In principle, I love the idea of news as a conversation. But clearly, news organizations need to find a better way to keep the conversation out of the gutter,” wrote the Toronto Star’s Kathy English barely a year after the paper opened its stories to readers’ comments.

Now, we here at the WP are not planning on removing a reader’s ability to comment on our stories online any time soon.

In fact, we’ve gone to considerable lengths to make sure the discussion remains relatively focused on the issue at hand, maintains decorum and keeps readers’ comments as civil as possible.

The primary way by which we accomplish this is through the use of a moderator, usually me.

I typically read and, where necessary edit, every comment posted to the WP site before deciding whether it meets our criteria of what makes a comment worthy of being shared with our readers.

Those criteria are quite simple: is the comment free of foul language or any possible legal issues (you can’t just write “so-and-so is a thief…”), is it pertinent to the issue at hand, and does it add something, anything, to the debate?

If those criteria are met, voila, your comment is published.

Now this is not to say that our comments don’t get a little heated at times. We have readers that are passionate about many facets of all issues facing modern agriculture, and this can make my job very challenging.

When the decision was made to close the anonymous commenting on articles on the Popular Science website two years ago (they were among the first to do so), one of their writers justified the move by noting, “even a fractious minority wields enough power to skew a reader’s perception of a story.”

For now, however, we think we’ve taken the necessary steps to keep our online comments both alive and vital — the rest is up to you.

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