On Aug. 1, the Eagle-Tribune, a daily newspaper in North Andover, Massachusetts, took a courageous step. It stopped allowing users to comment anonymously on its Web site.
In a column announcing the decision, Executive Editor Al White said that while he understood that some people were unable to comment freely under their own names, allowing anonymity created bigger problems. “Too many used the feature to spew vitriol, bigotry, obscenity, cheap shots and juvenile taunts, no matter how hard we worked to keep the conversation civil.”
In the week since the policy took effect, comments on the Eagle-Tribune Web site have dropped significantly, as expected, but White told me he’s surprised and encouraged by how many people are willing to switch to their real names, and he thinks some people will be more willing to comment if they don’t have to worry about being slammed in an anonymous rebuttal.
The Eagle-Tribune is not the first newspaper to adopt this policy. USAToday has long insisted that commenters sign in via Facebook, which says effectively does away with anonymous posting, according to USAToday’s Desair Brown (No system is fullproof). But the comment policies of other major newspapers, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times do allow anonymous posts, although those papers put a lot of effort into moderating and pre-approving comments to keep the conversation civil.
White, incidentally, may go farther than most. the Eagle-Tribune asks for a name and phone number, checks names against on lines sources and calls the phone number if there’s a question. Once approved, commenters are white listed for future use.
In some ways, the move to disallow anonymous comments seems logical. No serious newspaper would print a letter to the editor that wasn’t signed and verified so why allow comments online from authors are unwilling to stand behind their words? There’s no question that the cloak of anonymity can encourage all kinds of behavior that otherwise wouldn’t and shouldn’t be tolerated.
A free-wheeling discussion of important issues is obviously crucial to a vibrant democracy, and no one wants to put unnecessary limits on free speech. But some restrictions are necessary, and asking someone to put their name behind their comments seems reasonable on its face.
At the same, putting your real name on a Web site, any Web site, exposes one to some risks. We don’t want to give purveyors of hate and violence the freedom to hide under anonymity, but neither do we want to expose anyone to retribution from the hate-mongers. It becomes a difficult line to walk.
White clearly recognizes that and indicates he acted reluctantly. He told me he doesn’t think there’s an ethical obligation to require names, but I can’t help wondering about that. In most situations, owning up to your behavior is the ethical thing to do, but there are exceptions—reporting a mafia hit man to the police is the oft-mentioned one.
I applaud White and wonder whether Web sites like TalkingEthics shouldn’t adopt a similar policy. I do think the news media have a special responsibility in this area, but so does a Web site devoted to ethics.
There would, of course, be a problem of resources. Right now, we don’t get that many comments (we’re only two weeks old), but asking for a phone number and verifying questionable registrants could easily become a difficult drain on our time. Our current policy is to watch comments closely and delete any that are out of line, but we could easily tighten that to require pre-approval before comments are posted. That, though, would mean delays in posting comments, perhaps alienating some who visit this Web site.
It seems only fitting to put that question to readers and would-be commenters. So that’s what I’m doing. Please let me know what you think.