Anonymous comments on HeraldTimesOnline, revisited

Herald-Times editor Bob Zaltsberg offered another defense of the policy protecting the anonymity of those who comment on HeraldTimesOnline. Well, it was not so much a defense of the policy as much as it was a re-statement of the existing policy. In fact, as far as I can recall it has never been explicitly stated in the Terms of Service or in an editorial that “outing” an anonymous commenter’s real name is prohibited prior to the January 26 editorial, though it is well known to HTO commenters that “outing” is prohibited.

Protecting anonymity remains a bad policy. I’ve written extensively on the subject in the past, but one thing stands out in terms of HTO comment policy: Why are story comments substantively different from letters to the editor? As far back as I can remember (back in 1996, when I started reading it on a daily basis) the Herald-Times has required the author’s full name be attached to a letter to the editor. Not only are full names not required for story comments, but HTO moderators will aggressively protect anonymity of HTO commenters.

The reason for this cannot be because story comments are more visible and therefore more likely to subject a user to retaliation than a letter to the editor. Letters to the editor are far more visible, showing up both in print and online with an average of no more than three to five published on an average day.

With story comments, it is easy for comments to get lost in a sea of dozens or even hundreds of comments on a specific story, especially in the “threaded” comment system that was implemented when HeraldTimesOnline switched to a new content management system in 2013. Now comments are much more difficult to follow than before. Unless you know the where the “back door” is, comments cannot even be read without a subscription

I use my real name in both comments and (obviously) LTTE and I have gotten far more real-world heat (and sometimes real-world retaliation) from my LTTE than from anything I have ever written on HTO.

It also cannot be that there would not be free-flowing debate. There has been free-flowing debate in the LTTE section – with real names in the print edition – for decades now. Obviously, people can write a lot more in comments than in a once-a-month letter with no word limit, but that can be done under a real name just as easily as under a fake name.

It is true that a comment stands or falls on its own, and the logical merit of something that is written does not depend on the identity of the poster being public. But once you get out of the theoretical world of philosophy and into what is actually written, the fact that some identities are hidden actually matters a great deal – especially when someone hiding behind a fake name is attacking (sometimes viciously attacking) someone who is open with his identity.

Finally, the Herald-Times is doing a grave disservice to its readers and committing an obscene offense against the profession of journalism by protecting the real names of some commenters who are candidates for elective office or who serve on high-profile county boards and commissions. When the “newspaper” aggressively deletes comments that reveal the names of those posters, it is engaged in a cover-up. No legitimate newspaper should ever do that.

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