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Three cheers for anonymous unmoderated comments

washington post Three cheers for anonymous unmoderated comments photoBy Doug Feaver, Washington Post, Thursday, April 9, 2009

I am writing in defense of the anonymous, unmoderated, often appallingly inaccurate, sometimes profane, frequently off point and occasionally racist reader comments that washingtonpost.com allows to be published at the end of articles and blogs. Aside from the fact that the newspaper business model is evaporating, there are few subjects more vexing for journalists and many readers of my generation than what to do about those comments. We don’t let this happen in letters to the editor. Where are the standards?

During most of my seven-year tenure as editor or executive editor of washingtonpost.com (I retired four years ago), I kept unmoderated comments off the site, with support for that position from the newspaper’s top editors, most of whom were of my generation.

I also opposed blogs, although I relented when it became obvious that they had become The Way for disciples of the Internet. Now I write a blog on washingtonpost.com called dot.comments. It is based entirely on the mutterings that emanate from anonymous comment writers reacting to Post journalism — and to each other.

I have come to think that online comments are a terrific addition to the conversation and that journalists need to take them seriously. Comments provide a forum for readers to complain about what they see as unfairness or inaccuracy in an article (and too often they have a point), to talk to each other (sometimes in an uncivilized manner) and, yes, to bloviate.

Comments are automatically posted without prior review by washingtonpost.com. If readers complain about a specific comment, it is reviewed and then removed if it violates published washingtonpost.com standards. Many other news organizations, including the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times, review comments before posting them.

But the bigger problem with The Post’s comment policy, many in the newsroom have told me, is that the comments are anonymous. Anonymity is what gives cover to racists, sexists and others to say inappropriate things without having to say who they are.

I believe that it is useful to be reminded bluntly that the dark forces are out there and that it is too easy to forget that truth by imposing rules that obscure it. As Oscar Wilde wrote in a different context, “Man is least in himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth.”

Too many of us like to think that we have made great progress in human relations and that little remains to be done. Unmoderated comments provide an antidote to such ridiculous conclusions. It’s not like the rest of us don’t know those words and hear them occasionally, depending on where we choose to tread, but most of us don’t want to have to confront them.

The subjects that have generated the most vitriol during my tenure in this role are race and immigration. The racist comments showed up regularly during the presidential campaign and have continued at a slower pace since Barack Obama’s election. Racist remarks often accompany stories about crime and violence. The untimely death of the Washington Redskins’ Sean Taylor would be the most appalling example. Where does this hate come from? Do we need to know it’s here?

Yes, we do. But I am heartened by the fact that such comments do not go unchallenged by readers. In fact, comment strings are often self-correcting and provide informative exchanges. If somebody says something ridiculous, somebody else will challenge it. And there is wit. My favorite one-liner came in the coverage following the botched swearing-in of President Obama by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. A reader self-identified as “HumbleGovWorker” observed that “This is not one for the Harvard Law Alumni Newsletter.” Both Obama and Roberts are Harvard Law grads.

Comments also tell us that readers do not always agree with journalists about what is important. A classic example was the debate in The Post’s newsroom last July when the paper ran a 12-part series on the death, seven years earlier, of Chandra Levy. “Why 12 parts? What’s going on?” a number of my colleagues asked each other.

But Our Readers Who Comment ate it up. They filed thousands of remarks on the series. With the news last month that an arrest had been made, the comment boards were reopened and the series again became among the site’s most-commented-on articles.

Comments are also a pretty good political survey. The first day it became clear that a federal bailout of Wall Street was a real prospect, the comments on the main story were almost 100 percent negative. It was a great predictor of how folks feel, well out in front of the polls. We journalists need to pay attention to what our readers say, even if we don’t like it. There are things to learn.

The writer is a former Post reporter and editor and was executive editor of washingtonpost.com from 2001 to 2005.

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