Monday, October 18, 2010

Two news comment policies to enhance the dialogue

This past weekend, my old employer and hometown news source instituted a new policy on comments -- for its staff.

I thought it odd that in 2010, editors would have to encourage reporters to monitor the comments on their stories. We should be doing that already. But working in a newsroom in a city roughly twice the size of my hometown, I'm one of the few reporters who actively comment on their stories. So I guess it's necessary to encourage staff to do this.

Coincidentally, my personal philosophy mirrors the News-Leader's policy:

"Whenever possible, reporters are being encouraged to respond to direct reader questions or inquiries by providing additional facts that are readily available to the reporter. Likewise, reporters are encouraged to respond if a quick comment can clear up misunderstandings or confusion about the story -- and even to confess when the initial report fell short."

Reporters and editors are required to use their real names. Comments from the rest of the community are not. If you look at the comments section of the same item, you will find very few relevant to the original post. Mostly, it's the same old off-topic bickering you might find in any post in sites around the country.

But elevating the conversation is a mission worth pursuing and I salute the News-Leader, and its parent company Gannett, for their efforts.

It also reminded me with a conversation I had with Rob Curley during my recent visit to Las Vegas. Last month, the Las Vegas Sun has stopped anonymous comments on its stories.

As Curley said "being yourself online is the new black." He pointed to Facebook's terms, which require users to provide their real identities. And there's just about nothing bigger than Facebook.

The Sun still has a system for allowing anonymous comments. As Curley pointed out, there are times when people need to shield their identities, such as when they are talking about their employers. But those comments appear on a separate page, instead of below the story. Editors must decide when a comment is "trusted" and relevant to the discussion, before it's moved over to the story.

"We're even building a a feature into the system so that anonymous comments can be recommended to be moved over to the story pages, similar to how readers can now suggest that comments be removed," Curley said in the comments section, replying to readers.

I've always agreed that people sign their letters to the editor and put their names on comments. I have a byline. I put my name, my phone number and email on everything I do. I sometimes get anonymous letters and emails and I stopped taking those seriously long ago. I always figure if they want me to take them seriously, they'll sign them.

I will also add information, or correct erroneous statements about facts in a story, when I see them in the comments section. I hope by doing so, it might steer the conversation back to relevancy.

And as I've noted before, I get a higher level of discussion on both Twitter and Facebook than I usually see elsewhere. And those are two place where people say who they are.

That's why I favor the Sun's policy.

I think those who comment on our web sites will act exactly as we expect them to. If we let them prattle on anonymously, it will draw those who favor that forum. If we participate in the conversation, and require people to say who they really are, we will get -- and deserve -- a higher level of discussion.

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