In online comments, you take the good with the bad

  • Fri Mar 16th, 2012 6:21pm
  • News

The Herald’s online commenters generate a lot of interest, in the community and certainly here at the newspaper. Monitoring their comments is a task shared by 10 editors, who take turns every day of the week.

The best comment strings are conversations, where points are exchanged, insights shared and arguments lead to understanding, if not agreement.

At worst, some HeraldNet commenters glory in the pain and hardship of others, including things as tragic as children’s accidental deaths, and call each other names they’d dare not say aloud within nose-punching distance.

So why do we allow comments?

“A newspaper tries to provide the news and information that helps people weave themselves into a community,” said Neal Pattison, Herald executive editor. “Unfortunately, many people now gravitate toward partisan and mean-spirited corners of the Internet — where they only converse with people who share their biases. With comments, we are inviting them back into the public square — but sometimes we have to remind them to lose their bad habits.”

Herald editors remove comments that violate our terms of service, which in general bar vulgarity, personal attacks or libel.

“It is The Herald’s site and we can’t let it be used for threats, illegal activities or defamations — things that put our company in jeopardy,” Pattison said.

Like some — but not all — newspapers, The Herald allows commenters anonymity. Posters can choose to use handles instead of their real names.

While that probably dissuades some from wading into troll-laden comment streams, it encourages others who may have a stake in a particular story to come forward with information.

One frequent commenter, who posts under the name “Jacques Klahaya,” agreed to answer a few questions for this column. Klahaya has posted nearly 2,000 times to HeraldNet stories over the past three years.

Why should The Herald allow people to use handles?

“Pseudonyms offer a relatively safe means of disseminating important information that otherwise would go unpublished, either because the contributor wasn’t interviewed or because he’d experienced retaliation for sharing it,” Klahaya said, in an email.

“Similarly, it allows contributors to make unpopular arguments and bluntly criticize propaganda, which would likewise result in ruinous persecution.”

So, what attracts this frequent contributor to comment on any given story? The story itself? The dialogue in comments?

“The topic” Klahaya wrote. “Generally I comment on articles that pertain to my hometown area and county, particularly as it involves politics. I do this because what gets reported is frequently spun by forked-tongued ‘spokespersons’ for government bureaucracies or politicians with agendas to push — whether as quoted directly, as anonymous sources, or as comment-section contributors. Those are the articles most worth contributing to.”

Klahaya had a question for The Herald, too.

“Why does the Herald continually allow anonymous online commentary when it sometimes exposes holes in the paper’s reporting?”

Reporting involves hearing from sources. Reporters are people who gather facts for a living, but the job description does not include omnipotence. We try to fill in crucial holes with facts. Sometimes, there are things we just don’t know, or would have no way of knowing.

Commenters who provide facts can, and do, push stories ahead and help a fuller picture appear over time.

“The online revolution has disrupted media businesses, no doubt about it,” Pattison said. “And public comments are now the norm. We can act deaf and blind to this kind of change — or we can try to evolve in the most responsible way possible.”

Each week, Here at The Herald provides an inside peek at the newspaper — its people and the work they do. Is there something you’d like to know? Send your idea to Executive Editor Neal Pattison, npattison@heraldnet.com.