Most online readers of The Spokesman-Review probably have discovered by now that we closed comments on our website beginning Dec. 23 and lasting through Jan. 1. We informed online readers of our decision with a prominent note on our website last weekend, but it’s a decision that is worth further explanation.
The primary reason we closed comments is to help preserve the spirit of the season, and to give our staffers a break from the time-consuming task of monitoring the comments. The holiday season is one that encourages and embraces thoughtfulness, sharing and family time, experiences that seem in short supply in the course of a year. It is our belief that a break from online commenting is simply a recognition that there are more important things to consider or do at this time of year.
The arena of online commenting seems both a blessing and a curse. The value, in theory, is the encouragement given to community conversations about important regional and local issues, the raising of good questions about how well government functions and, occasionally, the offering of constructive criticism of our journalism. Too often, the reality is the frequent mean-spirited postings that resort to name-calling, hatefulness, homophobia, xenophobia, racism, sexism and outrageous profanity. Because those who comment on our site are allowed anonymity, we believe that cloak of protection invites the sort of incivility, name-calling and nastiness that requires monitoring on a nearly constant basis.
The Spokesman-Review and newspapers across the country devote an enormous amount of staff resources to overseeing reader comments, time that many of us would rather spend researching and writing valuable stories more important to the community.
We are often accused of censoring comments, but such a characterization is simply untrue. Governments censor speech and the written word. News organizations like ours apply basic guidelines for editing stories and photos and selecting what appears in the newspaper and online each day. Just to be clear, we do not change or edit anyone’s online comments, but we exercise our right to exclude comments in their entirety for several reasons.
We, on occasion, ban commenters who insist on ignoring the general rules of good taste and decency. We have blocked comments on a particular story because too many commenters couldn’t resist posting personal or insulting attacks on individuals. Imagine losing a family member or friend in a traffic accident or violent circumstance and then seeing insensitive comments at the end of the story, suggesting the victim ‘deserved’ to die. Are we too sensitive in the newsroom? Are we prudish? Hardly.
In our note posted on the website last Sunday, we also described our closure of comments as an experiment. We consider it an experiment because the results may prompt us to block comments in other holiday periods. While we have blocked comments on stories this week, readers can comment on the various blogs that we host on our site. Not surprisingly, comments on our blogs and traffic on our website in general have slacked off during the holiday season.
Many newspapers have wrestled with the anonymous nature of online comments. Some have imposed requirements that all commenters have to register and use their real names. Would requiring all commenters to use their names improve the quality of commenting? Hard to say. Newspapers that require commenters to use their Facebook identities have found that eliminating anonymity has hardly persuaded some of the most uncivil participants to rein in their venom.
The last time we examined the data on our site’s comments, we learned that nearly 80 percent of the comments posted come from a core of about 20 percent of participants. Such patterns suggest that a relatively select group likes to comment in particular threads multiple times, which is perhaps a good sign of their interest. But it also suggests that a small group dominates the online conversation.
In contrast to online commentary, most newspapers, including The Spokesman-Review, do not print anonymous letters to the editor. Our staff contacts people who submit letters to verify their name and to assure that they indeed wrote the letter. Some might ask why shouldn’t online comments be held to the same standard?
I welcome your thoughts on our online policies. Adjustments have been made on our website to allow commenting on this column. Please join the conversation.