Salt Lake Paper Limits Comments

The Deseret News has instituted a new comments policy.  The newspaper encourages but doesn’t require that commenters post using a screen name that is a form of their real name.  Not sure why they don’t just require the real name as they are requiring a real name and zip code in the registration process. 

What strikes me as wrong, however, is its new policy to limit the number of times one person can comment to two.  These sections, if they were among people we could identify, might be much more constructive and civil.  Discussion should be encouraged, and I wish more reporters would weigh in with clarifications when people draw incorrect assumptions about the issue covered.  Not that over taxed reporters have the time, mind you.

It makes little difference to me, as I rarely comment on a story and almost never read any of the comments. (There are exceptions, such as some blogs like Press Think’s comments section, which tends to be illuminating.

I have yet to hear a cogent argument why online comments can be anonymous, but letters to the editor cannot.

Anyone have an answer for that?

Buffalo News Requires Real Names in Comments

More papers should do this.

After quite a bit of internal discussion, The News — in the next few weeks — will make a significant change. We will require commenters to give their real names and the names of their towns, which will appear with their comments, just as they do in printed “letters to the editor,” which have appeared daily for many years on the newspaper’s op-ed page.

It will mean that Web site readers must fill out an online form and include a phone number that we will use to help verify that they are who they say they are. It won’t be foolproof, and it will be somewhat labor-intensive for us, but we think it will raise the level of the discussion.

Cleveland Judge, Anonymous Commenter No More

This story is full of intriguing questions and monumental stupidity, all in the name of anonymous commenters on newspaper sites.

It seems a certain “lawmiss” was frequently commenting on Cleveland Plain Dealer stories, mostly about legal matters.  It turns out lawmiss is linked to an email account used by Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Judge Shirley Strickland Saffold—and her 23-year old daughter

The Plain-Dealer decided it was a story that a judge was anonymously commenting on legal matters, including some cases before her.  So it published her name in apparent violation of its privacy policy.  The judge has sued the newspaper for $50 million, saying that all the “lawmiss” comments were posted by her daughter, who accepted responsibility.  But, the judge’s lawyer,

…in an interview with ABC News, acknowledged for the first time Wednesday the possibility that Saffold posted comments under the moniker "lawmiss," which was set up on through an e-mail account used by the judge. Saffold last month denied leaving any lawmiss comments, and her daughter took responsibility for all of them.

First question, why would an educated woman in a sensitive official position be so stupid as to share an email account with her daughter?  Second question, why would a daughter be so moronic as to comment on cases over which her mother presides?  This pair deserves one another.  Third question, did the judge really post some of the comments herslef? 

County records show that three of the comments were left at the same time as someone using Saffold’s court computer was visiting….. The judge acknowledged in an interview last month that such comments would have been improper if she had made them.”

But why did the Plain Dealer out lawmiss?  The judge’s suit claims it was in retaliation for a lawmiss comment that disparaged a reporter’s relative.  (So be forewarned should you in a comment evoke the ubiquitous “mother f****r charge.)  Seriously, I don’t know what the remark was.

[Plain Dealer Editor Susan] Goldberg said last month that the issues raised by lawmiss’ comments outweighed any privacy interests of the poster. [Editor’s note:  Who died and made them God?] Goldberg noted that comments made were not about trifling matters. The posts related directly to two death-penalty cases involving Saffold as judge — the 2008 murder trial of former Cleveland firefighter Terrance Hough Jr. and the case of Anthony Sowell, accused of killing 11 women.

"What if it ever came to light that someone using the e-mail of a sitting judge made comments on a public Web site about cases she was hearing, and we did not disclose it?" Goldberg said last month. "These are capital crimes and life-and-death issues for these defendants. I think not to disclose this would be a violation of our mission and damaging to our credibility as a news organization."

The day the story was published, Sowell’s lawyer requested that Saffold recuse herself from hearing the Sowell case, arguing that the lawmiss comments showed bias. Saffold has not made a decision.

In the lawsuit filed Wednesday, [the judge’s attorney Brian] Spitz argues that the newspaper’s online editors looked up the lawmiss user registration information as a vendetta, because of the remark left about a reporter’s relative.

OK.  We know many journalists have notoriously thin skins, but why would you decide to out someone just after she disparaged a relative?  Not too much of a stretch for people to think it’s retaliatory.

And exactly what was the newspaper’s privacy policy?’s privacy policy was written by Advance Internet, a separate entity affiliated with The Plain Dealer. The privacy policy states, "We may also provide access to our database in order to cooperate with official investigations or legal proceedings, including, for example, in response to subpoenas, search warrants, court orders, or other legal process."

None of those apply except perhaps “other legal process.”   Wide latitude there.  But I think even the Plain Dealer would admit that the reason was journalistic, whether valid or not.

A lot of commenters on the site are outraged that their identities are vulnerable to the newspaper’s whims.  But its policy also states,

"In addition, we reserve the right to use the information we collect about your computer, which may at times be able to identify you, for any lawful business purpose. . ."

In other words, if use f**k a lot, the paper may give your personal information to a porn site!  Seriously, if you mentioned in a comment that you like working in the garden, the newspaper could give your email address to a gardening company.  After all, it’s “lawful business purpose.”

So add to the stupidity hall of fame anyone who thinks their comments will always remain anonymous.

And finally, to add a little irony,

Even as the lawsuit criticizes the newspaper for revealing the e-mail address linked to lawmiss, it says it expects the defendants to identify all anonymous commenters who criticized Saffold on The suit lists those commenters as John Does and says they also are defendants.

So anonymous commenters, press your shirt, make sure your zipper is up and march on down to the county court.  You are about to live your worse nightmare.

Are You a ‘Trusted Commenter’?

This is an interesting idea.  If it gets me reading article and blog comments, I’ll be impressed.

The [Washington] Post will implement a system that should help. It’s still being developed, but Straus said the broad outlines envision commenters being assigned to different "tiers" based on their past behavior and other factors. Those with a track record of staying within the guidelines, and those providing their real names, will likely be considered "trusted commenters." Repeat violators or discourteous agitators will be grouped elsewhere or blocked outright. Comments of first-timers will be screened by a human being.

When visitors click to read story comments, only those from the "trusted" group will appear. If they want to see inflammatory or off-topic comments from "trolls," they’ll need to click to access a different "tier."

Cruelty Sells

From Neil Steinberg of the Chicago Sun-Times, the answers as to why newspapers don’t delete scurrilous, vulgar and vicious comments and demand identity of commenters.

Most media Web sites offer readers the opportunity to respond. Why do they give a platform to anonymous cruelty? The true reason has nothing to do with free expression — rather, Web sites are evaluated according to how many people click on them and how long they stay, and if a certain percentage log in to glory over the death of a woman and a baby hit by a train, their participation still helps to pay the bills.

Anonymous Blog Commenters

I have a problem with anonymous comments on a blog.  I think in the public square as our forefathers envisioned it, you could say whatever you want, but being in the square we would know who you are.  That said, many of the early pamphleteers were anonymous.  So the tradition is well established.  The right to hand out anonymous fliers was protected as recently as 1995 by the U.S. Supreme Court. 

Vivian Paige  has a recent post about her new comment policy and there ensued a discussion that I was part of on the issue.

Now comes the issue of whether anonymous blog commenters can hide behind their anonymity to libel anyone with scurrilous charges.  Apparently, the Wausau Daily Herald revealed names of anonymous commenters who posted charges of malfeasance by a top administrator of a small Wisconsin town.  After the paper did so as the administrator demanded, its parent, Gannett, apologized for what it said was a mistake.  The newspaper conglomerate said it had a duty to conceal the names, claiming that such comments were due the same protection as anonymous sources in a newspaper story.

Courts have recently agreed that state shield laws apply to the anonymous commenters.

Edward Wasserman, a journalism ethics professor at Washington and Lee university, thinks that’s wrong headed.  Comparing anonymous sources to anonymous bloggers doesn’t hold water.

Plainly, there are good reasons to seek anonymity: You might fear reprisal or embarrassment, or might simply want your ideas considered independently of who you are. And the court said those preferences should not affect your right to comment, especially on matters of public policy.

But suppose that leaflet isn’t taking a stand on a school tax. It’s a false and damaging denunciation of some school board member. And she wants to sue.

The authors are anonymous, but she knows where the leaflet was printed, so she persuades a judge to order the printer to disclose her tormentors. The printer is supposed to comply.

Unless it’s a news organization. Then, apparently, the printer is supposed to resist. And the board member who was slimed is out of luck.

That seems unfair, unless there’s some good, overriding public benefit at stake. That’s where the anonymous-source rationale is being invoked: Some news sources provide valuable information that they might never furnish unless they knew they’d be safe from reprisal. The writers of the anonymous posts are no different.

Except that anonymous posters are nothing like confidential sources.

First, a confidential source is not anonymous; the reporter knows who it is and is obligated to evaluate the source’s credibility. The identity of the anonymous poster, on the other hand, is truly unknown. He or she could be an ex-spouse, a delusional sociopath or both. Nobody knows.

Second, no one even tries to verify the information from the anonymous poster. Information from a confidential source should be, and normally is, evaluated and scrutinized before it’s published.

Reporter shield laws are an expression of trust. Lawmakers have said, in effect, that they have enough regard for the value of news, and for the capacity of the journalist to assess information from vulnerable sources, that they’ve carved out a huge area of discretion. To ensure the flow of publicly significant information, they allow the journalist to help people with valuable information to stay in the shadows when the journalist determines, in good faith, that they must.

That’s a huge grant of trust. And claiming for anonymous posters the protections that confidential sources deserve debases the currency, makes a whistleblower no different from a crank. As an ethical matter it’s indefensible. As a political reality, it’s a surefire way to guarantee the demise of source protections.

Can bloggers earn that “grant of trust”?  As many bloggers themselves are anonymous, I wouldn’t hold your breath.  I am certain there will be more challenges to the idea that anonymity should granted as a safeguard for malicious libel.