AJR  Columns
From AJR,   June/July 2010

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It’s time for news sites to stop allowing anonymous online comments.

By Rem Rieder
Rem Rieder (rrieder@ajr.umd.edu) is AJR's editor and senior vice president.     

The line from Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord, the diplomat nonpareil known to his many friends as "Talleyrand," puts it best: "This is worse than a crime, it's a blunder."

The practice of allowing anonymous comments on online news sites has always been problematic. For years newspapers have insisted that letters to the editor be accompanied by the actual name of the actual person who wrote them. The thinking was that if you want to make some bold statements, you ought to be willing to take responsibility for them.

Similarly, many news outlets have codes and policies barring blind attack quotes in their news columns.

But when they embraced the freewheeling world of the Internet, news organizations switched gears. Want to take some shots while wearing a cloak of confidentiality? No problem.

The outcome was predictable. Comments sections are often packed with profanity and vicious personal attacks. The opportunity to launch brutal assaults from the safety of a computer without attaching a name does wonders for the bravery levels of the angry. As Miami Herald columnist Leonard Pitts wrote recently, anonymous online forums "have become havens for a level of crudity, bigotry, meanness and plain nastiness that shocks the tattered remnants of our propriety."

Some take the position that requiring would-be commenters to register while remaining anonymous solves the problem. Maybe forcing them to take that added step would allow them time to cool off. (See Drop Cap, February/March 2009.) But check out the comment sections on just a handful of stories and you'll soon see this approach hasn't worked.

One good reason to end the practice of allowing unnamed comments is that it's flat-out wrong. Another is that it is causing headaches for news outlets, headaches they seriously don't need, and it will cause more in the future.

Take NOLA.com, the Web site of New Orleans' Times-Picayune, which found itself in a brief court battle over releasing the names of anonymous posters who upset a local pol. In May, Jefferson Parish interim President Steve Theriot filed a defamation suit against a bunch of anonymous commenters and asked NOLA.com to give him the identities that go with 11 user names. The Times-Pic attorney said the news outlet would resist subpoenas for the names.

Luckily, Theriot soon reversed field and dropped the suit. But with all the challenges facing media organizations these days, this kind of distraction was the last thing the Times-Picayune and NOLA needed.

Meanwhile, it's not hard to see why Theriot was upset. Here's a sample comment: "Theriot, just another Jefferson Parish politician thug mobster trained by his mentor..dressed up in a façade of respectability by a corrupt Louisiana Legislature."

There's just no defense for a system that allows anyone to post this kind of stuff anonymously.

The comments have also complicated life at Cleveland's Plain Dealer. In April, Judge Shirley Strickland Saffold sued the paper for $50 million for violating her privacy after it published a story linking a number of controversial comments on the Plain Dealer Web site to her e-mail account. Some of the comments were about cases still before the judge, including one involving an alleged serial killer. The judge says she shares the account with her daughter and that her daughter wrote the comments about pending cases.

Saffold's lawyer, Brian Spitz, told NPR, "Either the Plain Dealer breached its promise to keep that information confidential, or it never intended to keep it confidential. So it's either a breach of contract or fraud."

Does the Plain Dealer really need to be dealing with this?

And there will be plenty more litigation to come. Lucy Dalglish, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, says outraged plaintiffs seeking to punish anonymous posters in court is "definitely the newest trend."

She adds, "A lot of people are really ticked off by anonymous comments. I think the public hates it."

While the Web sites are generally immune, the people who post the comments can be sued for defamation. To unmask the posters, plaintiffs must meet a multipart test, showing they have a good chance of prevailing. Ultimately the judge must decide whether the need for disclosure trumps the poster's right to anonymous free speech.

As for her own view of anonymous comments, Dalglish doesn't mince words: "I hate them. Anonymous posts are vicious. They think they can say anything."

Continuing to allow anonymous sniping hardly seems to be in the self-interest of news outlets. Sure, everyone is desperately chasing eyeballs as a way to increase advertising (see "Looking Up," Summer 2010). But rare is the advertiser who would want to be associated with the ugliness of many comment sections.

So this is a no-brainer. It's one of those beautiful times when doing the smart thing is also doing the right thing.