I greatly admire you for your civility challenge you’ve issued to the readership [“A Polite Way to Put It: Xpress Issues Civility Challenge,” Feb. 22], although the cynic in me not only suspects that you’ll have your hands more than full policing the comments sections, you’ll also have an uptick in troll activity by the smartasses who want to see what they can slip by you. (Coded lingo by white supremacists, for example.) I must confess, however, that I’ve never felt a letters or comments section should be regarded as the journalistic equivalent of a Speakers’ Corner in Hyde Park; if people want to voice their opinions at will, they can start their own newspaper or blog.
At any rate, the partial solution has been available to you all along: moderated and verified comments.
For as long as there have been newspapers and Letters to the Editors sections, it’s been a policy of reputable journalism outlets to require that every letter contain the writer’s name, address, and a contact number. Upon receipt of a letter, one of the publication’s editors would telephone the letter writer and verify who they were and what they wrote. (This was one of my tasks when I worked at a paper some years ago.)
Obviously, this was not a foolproof system, since anyone could in theory sign a fake name to a letter, or have an unpublished phone number. But it was still relatively reliable, and it certainly cut down on the percentage of folks scheming to get anonymous and inflammatory commentary into the paper. The letters were effectively “moderated,” as well, as letters sections typically bore the disclaimer “Letters to the Editor may be edited for clarity and space” (and, by implication, “taste”).
I see no reason, other than lack of manpower or laziness on the part of a journalistic outlet, why similar policies couldn’t be enacted for online comments sections, which are simply a digital iteration of a Letters to the Editor section.
— Fred Mills
Editor’s response: The internet is inherently a different medium than broadcast or print, because it is a network in which potentially every user can be a publisher. The dynamics are so different that Congress recognized as much in the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which sets out different standards for what is published online versus in print. Consequently, Xpress’ policy regarding publication in print of letters to the editor must adhere to a different legal standard than online comments. While we could adopt a policy that allows only moderated and verified comments, we have not done so because it runs counter to the freer flow of information found on the internet. Our civility challenge, however, does reflect our desire to apply some filters and controls on that flow.