Let's End Anonymous Comments

I'm not going to tell you who I am until the end of this essay because I want to prove a point to you. Knowing who I am -- who the author is -- matters. Yet, in our new age of electronic media, this crucial fact is vanishing from much of the information we consume.

Changes in the media landscape and in media law have brought with them a new era of anonymous discourse, evident on news sites across the country. I think that's bad for our democracy and our communities.

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For you, the reader, knowing who I am helps you decide both if you want to spend your time reading what I have to say and whether you think I know what I'm talking about. You want to know if I have credibility.

For me, as the writer, connecting my name with what I say holds me accountable. I'll think hard about what I write and consider whether my words are ones I want to be connected with when I walk the halls of the campus where I teach or push my cart around the grocery store where I shop.

By allowing anonymity to become an acceptable and common practice, I fear, we have unintentionally let changes in technology lower our ethical standards. I'd like to encourage the return to a higher standard.

Here's what I propose: If you want to say it, put your name next to it. That's it.

Nationwide, news organizations, social networking sites and other community Web sites are allowing anonymous comments.

One reason for the change is that the laws are different for the Internet. Newspapers have historically required people who write letters to the editor that are published in the paper to identify themselves both when they submit the letter and also when that letter is published. Editorial page editors receive the letters, review and edit them and contact the letter writers to confirm that they are, in fact, the ones who wrote the letters.

They do this at least in part because laws regarding defamation state very clearly that if a letter published in a paper is defamatory, it isn't just the letter writer who can be named in that lawsuit. The newspaper, too, can be held liable.

With the Internet, however, a federal regulation called Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act lets news organizations off the hook. The regulation frees Web sites from being responsible for comments posted on their sites. If they want to, newspapers can open the door and allow the anonymous commenters to post away. Obscenity? Defamation? Hate speech? Just plain bad taste? Go for it.

Of course, that doesn't mean the anonymous person is safe. In case after case, courts around the nation are demanding that news organizations and social networking sites release the identities of people who thought they were protected from being held accountable for their comments.

Late last month, the Knoxville News Sentinel complied with a federal grand jury subpoena to release the name of a person the FBI said posted an anonymous death threat against the defense attorneys representing a man accused of a double murder, according to an article written by The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.

In spite of incidents like these, Jack Lail, director of news innovation for the News Sentinel's Web site, told me in a phone interview that he thinks allowing comments, including anonymous ones, creates a positive and useful community discussion on issues and is becoming a very important aspect of the new media environment.

"What you really want to do is foster positive discussions about things. So how do you create a community where you have vibrant, positive discussions whether they are spirited or not?" asked Lail, who led a Poynter/NewsU Webinar on monitoring online discussions last week.

Lail's news organization receives from 35,000 to 55,000 comments a month on its Web site. By instituting safeguards such as allowing other readers to flag inappropriate comments, requiring people to register and sign user agreements and by kicking out those who break the rules, news organizations and other Web sites can do a lot to encourage the good discussion and weed out "trolls."

The risk, he points out, is that if news organizations don't offer the public a "place" for this discussion to occur, another site will.

He's got some support for anonymity from history. The Federalist Papers, which laid the groundwork for our country's constitution and were printed in newspapers around the nation, were written by two Founding Fathers, James Madison and Alexander Hamilton. The authors, however, hid their identity using the pseudonym "Publius."

Still, I'm not convinced.

First, I don't think news organizations can justify allowing anonymity simply because others are doing it. Peer pressure is usually a pretty weak excuse for an ethical lapse.

Second, what I've seen in most comments sections hardly looks like healthy discussion of important community issues. Instead, it's dominated by mean-spirited, divisive and cowardly rants published by people who would not, you hope, want their names connected to these ideas.

I propose that if you want to speak in public, you should be courageous enough to stand by your words. It would not be that difficult for Web sites to include this rule in their user agreements and for any comments made to automatically include the identity of the person who wrote them.

The discussion still happens; you just know who you're having it with.

In the law and ethics class I teach, we often talk about the difference between what the law allows us to do and what our ethics dictate that we should do. I say let's raise our own community standard well above the minimum requirements set by law.

Starting right now.

I'll go first. Hi, I'm John Hatcher. I'm a journalism professor at the University of Minnesota Duluth. What's your name?

This piece was adapted from one scheduled to appear Monday, Nov. 16 in the Duluth News Tribune.

  • John Hatcher

    John Hatcher, Ph.D., is a journalism professor at the University of Minnesota Duluth. He received his doctorate from Syracuse University where he taught newswriting. He is the former education director for the Center for Community Journalism at SUNY Oswego.


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