On the New York Times op-ed page today you’ll find a plea against anonymity in online forums. I’ve been commenting on anonymity for a long time now — the latest iteration here. My belief now is that newspapers ought to offer tiered service. Anonymous users get a low level of service; people who are open about their identities get a high level of service.
I believe there is still a (small) place for anonymity.
But that doesn’t mean I like it (anymore). The excuses I read/hear are mostly the same: “I can’t post under my real name because [world-ending calamity would occur].
If true (and I wonder), then perhaps it is not ethical for such a commenter to be commenting in the first place. (I wonder the same thing about anonymous sources in journalism, but that’s a matter for another post.)
No newspaper owes any citizen space online or in print. It’s simply a good idea and one important way to fulfill the primary purpose of journalism: To give citizens the information they need to be free and self-governing.
Want to rant into cyberspace and be anonymous? Start a blog.
It’s time for newspapers to stop enabling anonymity. Implementing service levels is a good way to do it.
In that post I linked above I talk about the new policy at the Springfield News-Leader (Gannett-wide I’ll bet) of having reporters participate in the online discussions of their stories — a good idea. But I’m also cautioning against getting sucked into arguments with trolls — typically anonymous. A former student of mine called me recently to chat about the comments on one of his stories. I call it “metergate.”
Here’s the offending sentence from his news story about Black Friday:
By Friday morning, the line outside Best Buy had stretch for several hundred meters.
And here is the problem as described by an anonymous commenter (with 8 recommends):
Yards and feet have meaning to me here in America – meters do not. I am not sure if the writer is European or just trying to be elist.
This is a real eye-roller in my opinion. But it is illustrative of a certain kind of socio-political non-thinking that is infecting our civic discourse. This appears to be trollish behavior to me and ought to be ignored. I think it would have been entirely appropriate for a commenter to ask why the reporter used “meters” instead of the more commonly-understood “yards.” (The AP Stylebook provides a little help here. Basically, since a metric measurement is not “relevant” to the story, it should have been changed to “yards” by a copy editor. A copy editor should also have taken care of ”had stretch”.) What would have been so wrong with simply asking? Well, it’s not effective trolling. Someone asking such a question may actually want to understand the use of the word rather than want to deal an ignorant socio-political zinger.
In this case, I happen to know that the reporter is biased to the metric system, but for reasons that have nothing to do with European elitism. Here’s the reporter’s respectful reply:
Oh, I didn’t mean to cause confusion. A meter is roughly the same as a yard. Eight years of military service has left me metric-minded.
He could also have mentioned his two tours in Iraq as a sergeant in charge of a combat unit. Not quite a European elitist.
I consider his commenting on metergate a waste of a good reporter’s time. Such time-wasters are going to continue as long as the News-Leader (and other newspapers) continue to run open commenting and forum systems.
The time has come for a tiered system to elevate civic discourse, enhance the primary purpose of journalism, and save reporters from time-wasting trolls.