November 30, 2010

Metergate In Springfield

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.

Well handled.

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.

20 Responses

  1. Excellent post, Andy. I like the approach of The New York Times, which moderates its comments effectively. I’m glad more organizations are re-examining this issue. The December E&P — which, ironically, isn’t available online — has a good overview of what some papers are doing (including restricting the number of comments per story for users and monitoring by editors).

  2. acline 

    Thanks, Jonathan… The time for change has arrived.

  3. Sven 

    “reasoned civil discourse is necessarily slightly inhuman” 😉

  4. acline 

    Sven… Good essay. Thanks for the link!

  5. Sven 

    While I’m at it, you might get a kick out of this. He was on public radio a few weeks ago abusing the DFHs calling in. One asked him why exceptional mass transit systems across the Midwest were dismantled to make way for the automobile; he replied “I don’t give a crap about your nostalgia.”

  6. Every single time I go to the Springfield News-Leader comments section, I tangle with the anonymous trolls. Generally speaking it requires that the article have some significant personal value to me before I even open the website at all.

  7. Tim 

    I disagree on two points:

    1. The respnse was a waste of time.
    2. The commenter was trolling.

    The response was extremely valuable for two reasons:

    1. Provided a “where I’m coming from” explanation for readers.
    2. Completely obliterated a stupid comment based on a stereotype.

    Bloggers and journalists should not be quick to label a commenter as a troll. That should be an earned label and cause for comment deletion and IP blocking. A single comment with stupid conjecture doesn’t merit the label and the blogger/journalist name-calling based on a single unappreciated comment looks petty, thin-skinned, and amateurish. Exactly the opposite from the outcome here by explaining the use of “meters” as a leftover bias from being steeped in military metrics (ask what time it is).

    Related dicussion at the Atlantic

  8. Tim 

    That’s Atlantic Wire, not Atlantic.

    Also interesting was the stupidity of the responses to the meter comment.

  9. acline 

    Tim… I would hope that I’m not too quick to call a troll. And I’m certainly willing to accept it as the case here. But, with long experience with the N-L comment system, I can assure you that there are plenty of actual trolls. You cautionary note is well taken.

    By “waste of time” I do not mean to suggest that “where I’m coming from” is a waste of time. I think you know that. I mean simply to suggest that reporters ought to be protected from the more idiotic comments — which I consider this comment to be.

  10. Tim 

    I don’t doubt there be trolls at N-L and am not accusing you of anything. You’re the best-est blogger by far!

    I also do not advocate troll-feeding and have no problem with tiered-identity privileges.

    I am reminded of an exchange at Pressthink:

  11. acline 

    Tim… It’s OK to accuse me of stuff 😉 Seriously, I take you seriously.

    Thanks for that link!

    I’ve been wondering how a tiered system ought to work. Something like this perhaps:

    Anonymity = some kind of identifier, limited characters and posts per day, watched carefully by moderators.

    Known to paper only = some kind of identifier, more characters and posts per day, watched less carefully.

    Known to all = some kind of identifier, unlimited characters and posts, watched a whole lot less carefully.

    Known regular contributor (earned over time) = some kind of identifier, unlimited everything, blog space, other goodies and perks as appropriate.

  12. Tim 

    I think that’s on track. I would add an economy of use. If I’m a one-time/infrequent drive-by commenter, an anonymous, brief, time-between-comments “account” is all I need and may not know/care if my comment gets moderated.

    If I want to converse or leave multiple comments across a single domain, I may be willing to register or prefer to use my Twitter/Facebook/OpenId account to associate with.

    If I want to build a reputation using my real name, I may want a “verified account” with a reputational points/likes/recommends system and bonus privileges for more characters/links/embedded content/email-rss for replies.

    If I am a long-time trusted community contributor, I may appreciate my own blog, or to be called to comment on a story that I’ve demonstrated expertise/interest. Could be a pre-publish fact ckeck, opinion quote, research assignment, or post-publish commentary/analysis/feedback.

  13. acline 

    Tim… Exactly. So now the thing to do is flesh this out a bit more and see if anyone is interested.

  14. Tim 

    Sounds like a good new media project for j-students. Perhaps interdisciplinary w/ compsci?

  15. acline 

    Tim… Yep. Semester ending. Will have to wait until January. But that’ll give me time to work up some details.

  16. This is an interesting debate, and I agree with Tim that it could provide some nice theoretical fodder for J-students.

    My personal view on anonymity is that it is simply commenter cowardice. If you are too afraid to take personal responsibility for the things you say or write, you label yourself “anonymous.”

    That fear might be rationally driven – for instance, the State Department recently discouraged young people from commenting positively about WikiLeaks if they were applying to jobs at State – or it might simply be the wimpy, duplicitous nature of a troll who does not wish to have his own little corner of the Internet despoiled by similar trollishness.

    Basically, though, anonymity = fear.

  17. Publius 

    I don’t think the principles of American democracy and liberty allow for the elimination of anonymity. Constitutional, legal, and historical precedent would seem to actively encourage it.

    In a society where the economically powerful can retaliate against free speech by the economically vulnerable with impunity, it is only common sense that a person be able to write their opinions using a pen name.

  18. acline 

    Publius… And nothing I’ve written suggests that anonymity should be eliminated — just marginalized in the context of newspaper journalism.

  19. Tim 

    Encouraging openess is different than punishing secrecy. It remains an interesting question what responsibilities the newspaper has with respect to the public’s/commenters’ privacy/secrets.

  20. acline 

    Tim… Yes. Good distinction.