Another column I found through a link in my morning e-mail from Poynter discusses what rules, if any, newspapers should have regarding online comments. In the guest column in the Miami Herald, Edward Wasserman, a professor of journalism ethics at Washington and Lee University, writes about the problems editors face with anonymous commenting. While most editors would never even consider running an anonymous letter to the editor, he writes, many also argue that restraining the speech of anonymous comments online would chase readers away. Wasserman argues that rules are needed, in part because the more aggressive, angry comments tend to drive away those who don't want to be attacked, actually harming the discussion.
In this case, the extreme license given individuals to vent, dissemble, excoriate and indulge their hates verbally, winds up destroying the expressive freedom that other people, less bold and less opinionated, need. Venturing an opinion, even a sound one, just isn't worth the risk. The overall result is a less expansive, less robust sphere of expression -- and sound, worthwhile thoughts aren't shared.
After working at a small college paper and reading the comments on most stories, I couldn't agree more that comments need some kind of regulation. At the Emerald, we used to approve every comment; now most are approved automatically. Most of the time, this isn't a problem. We have a few regulars who leave the same types of predictable comments on every story, and few of our articles lead to much discussion. Occasionally, however, one article will bring us more attention than we would ever have expected, and it leads me to question how much important discussion is actually encouraged by the story comments. ...
This year, a column on wrestling drew nearly 800 comments and drew more hits to our Web site than we've ever had, and more than 100 more were deleted because they were too offensive or vitriolic to run. It's interesting that of all the articles we've published that I think are the most important, the column in question garnered hundreds of comments, many of which were nothing more than insults directed at the writer. Earlier this year, a satirical column about Japanese anime got hundreds of comments, most of which were simply attempts to prove that certain story lines in the shows disproved the writer's point. A story about the dismissal of two popular administrators with no explanation, however, got just 46 comments. I rarely read the comment fields on other newspaper sites. I find that the stories I actually care about have very few comments. I also avoid them for some of the reasons Wasserman brings up — I find that argumentative, hateful posters make it impossible to have a real discussion.