Friday, July 6, 2012

The challenge of keeping reader's comments civil

There have always been letters to the editor. However, the rise of instant reader feedback on the Internet, and the trend of newspapers to print anonymous reactions to the news, have intensified problems in the potentially wild world of interactivity.

Involvement of the public in commenting on websites and in newspapers often means that the discussion of serious issues devolves into name-calling, abusive, and even libelous insults.

Although it seems like a modern problem, editors have been wrestling with reader comments at least since the mid-1700s.

“In the conduct of my newspaper I carefully excluded all libeling and personal abuse,” Benjamin Franklin wrote in his autobiography. “Whenever I was solicited to insert anything of that kind and the writers pleaded, as they generally did, the liberty of the press—and that a newspaper was like a stagecoach, in which anyone who would pay had right to a place—my answer was that I would print the piece separately if desired, and the author might have as many copies as he pleased to distribute himself, but that I would not take upon me to spread his detraction.”

Several newspapers, broadcast entities, and online sites refuse to print any comments because readers turn rancorous so often under the cover of anonymity or fake names. Several media companies are pursuing different strategies toward vetting reader comments. <link> Others publicize a real-name policy to stem the negativity, such as the Grand Island (Neb.) Independent <link> which warns:

“This is a community conversation, but The Independent is controlling it on our site. Therefore, we set the rules….Although the first amendment to the U.S. Constitution allows for freedom of speech, Congress is not in charge of this site. This is a privately owned Web site.”

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