Gerber: Our online comments policy is changing

Gerber: Our online comments policy is changing

January 1st, 2012 by Alison Gerber in Opinion Columns

Free speech is the principle under which newspapers operate. As such, the journalists of the Times Free Press have wrestled with how - or whether - to regulate reader comments to our online stories.

We've allowed readers to comment anonymously on any story since February 2008. But starting today, the newspaper is changing its policy. Readers are free to comment anonymously on any works of opinion such as columns, editorials and cartoons. In other words, you can give your opinion when the writer is giving his or her opinion.

Don't worry, those of you who love-or love to hate-editorial cartoonist Clay Bennett are still free to comment on his works since they express an opinion.

But we are closing off comments on fact-based articles such as news, features or business stories and accounts of sporting events. Our reporters and editors spend an enormous amount of time verifying facts and making sure a story is as accurate as possible. If we don't get it right, we lose our credibility. We don't run a single letter to the editor without verifying and publishing the writer's name. And we have very stringent rules for using unnamed sources in news stories. Yet even with all of this fact-checking, we've been allowing anonymous commenters to post whatever they want - regardless of whether it's factual - to our online stories.

Too often, commenters post statements that simply are not accurate; sometimes they attack the person who is the subject of a story.

In too many cases, the online conversations descend into poisonous exchanges with comments that are cruel, rage-filled, racist or brimming with words you wouldn't want your mother to hear you utter.

We remove many of those comments, but it's nearly impossible to police every one and, even if an inappropriate or inaccurate comment is up only for a short time, it can damage the reputation of a person, a business, the newspaper.

It's easy to launch a personal attack or spit out a bigoted remark when you're anonymous.

I wonder how many of the anonymous commenters would make the same hateful statements if their real name were attached?

It's also easy for the newspaper to look the other way and say, "Sure, we own the website, but those are not our opinions. The facts may be wrong, but they're not our facts." In other words, we might own the building but don't blame us if it's covered in graffiti.

But that's the easy way out.

We started allowing online comments as a way of providing a public forum for free speech. At first, we got one or two comments per story. We'd get excited if a story received a half-dozen comments.

Now, a high-interest or controversial story can generate plenty of comments. A story about the Christmas Eve shootings outside the Mosaic Arts Venue in downtown Chattanooga drew more than 100, many of which we chose to remove because they crossed the line.

We have a loyal cadre of commenters, many of whom keep the discussion aboveboard and make excellent points. Unfortunately, those level-headed commenters are being penalized because the number of crude, rude and unfair posts is growing and tarnishing the whole forum.

Other newspapers have cut off all comments on their websites or decided that online readers may only comment on their website by registering through Facebook, which gives the name of anyone who posts. We didn't want to go those routes. However, we still will post some stories on the Times Free Press Facebook page, and readers are welcome to comment there.

You may argue that closing off comments is a bad business decision.

Will we give up some page views when we change our comment policy? Yes.

Do we want to give up page views? Certainly not.

But is it the right thing to do? We believe so.

Let me know what you think.

Alison Gerber is the managing editor of the Times Free Press. Reach her at agerber@ timesfreepress.com or go online to timesfreepress.com to comment on this column.