Once upon a time when newspapers were made of paper and mail was tucked into a sealed, stamped envelope and carried by truck and by foot to the receiver, comments printed in “Letters to the Editor” sections of newspapers were civil and, often, intelligent. These letters were always signed—not only with the writer’s real name but also the city or town of residence. Those who wished to offer their comments to newspapers were accountable for the words they penned.
With the advent of the digital age much has changed.
Today, in a seeming attempt to create community and conversation, and maintain an audience, many news outlets have introduced “Comments” features to their online editions–and now face ethical quandaries. Gone, it seems, are the days of thoughtful dialogue. This is due in part to the fact that readers can make up online identities that allow them to remain anonymous and unaccountable for their comments. It’s also due to the ease of online commenting.
It takes little time to type a few sentences and hit the “enter” key, sending criticism and vitriol through cyberspace to become embedded at the bottom of a carefully-crafted news story. No searching for a pen, a clean sheet of paper, or the newspaper’s address required. No time taken for reflection and reconsideration of the words used for expression. Now, readers react instantly and often emotionally. And the results can be hurtful and ugly.
The Wall Street Journal (WSJ) seems to have created a decent balance between allowing comments and maintaining civility in its online edition. It uses several strategies to achieve this.
- Comments do not appear at the bottom of articles or opinion pieces. Readers must click on a tab at the top of the story to go to a Comments page for that story.
- Commenting requires a Community Profile, acquired through membership to the WSJ’s Journal Community. Members agree to use their real names because, according to the WSJ, “The Journal Community encourages thoughtful dialogue and meaningful connections between real people…The quality of conversations can deteriorate when real identities are not provided.”
- There are rules, and the WSJ can, at any time, remove posts that violate them.
As a result of these rules, and the encouraged use of real identities, posted comments are surprisingly civil and thoughtful, compared to those found on websites like CBC.ca. There are also fewer of them. For example, today the CBC posted the story, “U.S. repositions military around Libya” at 7:14 a.m. ET. Within eight hours there were 274 comments. The WSJ posted the column, “The Libyan Uprising: Lessons From Iraq” which received 51 comments in 15 hours today. Another WSJ article today, “China’s Vote On Libya Signals Possible Shift,” received 24 comments in 15 hours.
On a different topic, the CBC story, “G20 ‘rights violations’ require public inquiry: report” received 861 comments in ten hours today.
Although the WSJ doesn’t have a way of verifying identities, the measures it’s taken to promote civil, constructive dialogue seem to be working. Almost every comment is a comment worth reading, unlike those found on news sites that allow fictitious “user names.” And, if a person wanted to read all of the comments on a story, it wouldn’t take the better part of a day, as it would with many stories on the sites where people rant and attack and spew whatever nonsense enters their heads.
So, if news organisations want to promote healthy dialogue, honour the journalists who work hard and ethically to write intelligent articles, and protect the sources who agree in good faith to be interviewed for these stories (sometimes only to later be attacked by commenters), they should address the issues that lead to the devolution of civility and intelligence on the pages of their online editions, and follow the thoughtful, responsible lead of the Wall Street Journal.