Anonymous commenting on news sites: The NYT analyzes a trend

Today’s NYT has an interesting article analyzing a trend away from anonymous commenting on news sites.  The news peg for this story are a number of recent decisions by papers to revise their commenting policies; the NYT cites the Washington Post and the Huffington Post as papers currently planning to move away from anonymous commenting.

This story picks up on an issue that’s been kicking around the community for some time now.  Poynter ran a story in June 2009 noting how some news organizations were turning off comments on individual stories or types of stories, including stories the editors deemed more likely than not to elicit racist and hateful speech.

An interesting angle on commenting comes from the world of scholastic media.  Jim Streisel, journalism teacher at Carmel HS (IN) and adviser to HiLite, discusses in an article on JEADigitalMedia.org how his students wrangled with the decision to close comments on their site in anticipation of problems with a particular story.  Rather than allow readers to comment online on a story about sexual harassment allegations, the staff instead outlined the procedure for writing traditional letters to the editor in the space where comments would usually run.

The free-for-all of anonymous commenting (which Arianna Huffington calls “just the way things are done [online]” in the NYT article) seems to be fading.  However, she goes on to say that while anonymity is part of online life, “there’s no question that people hide behind anonymity to make vile or controversial comments,” and that she believes “the trend is away from anonymity.”

News organizations will need to find ways to balance the need to engage their communities without anonymous comments.  On certain sites, there may be a need for anonymous commenting.  However, it seems that in many cases, anonymous comments can be disposed of without affecting the public’s ability to have a voice.

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