Star-Telegram changing method for reader comments on stories, columns, editorials

Posted Wednesday, Sep. 11, 2013  comments  Print Reprints
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witt Beginning Thursday, readers who want to comment on stories, columns and editorials at star-telegram.com will be required to log in using a Facebook account. If you don’t have an account, it’s free and easy to set up at facebook.com.

The reason for this change is pretty simple: Facebook requires account holders to use their names, and we believe that anyone who wants to contribute to our public forums should put their name on it. Although we’ve always required people who send us letters to the editor to identify themselves, online commenting has, for the most part, been anonymous.

Read our Facebook commenting FAQ

And the difference in the discourse is striking. In signed letters for our print editions, writers make their points using reasoned and usually reasonable arguments. But online, comment threads too often devolve into a cesspool of name-calling. On some stories, we are forced to turn off the commenting feature because the language becomes too offensive.

In talking to readers, I’ve found that many have been discouraged from commenting because they are turned off by the nastiness.

Many papers around the country require commenters to use Facebook, including USA Today, the Miami Herald and the Charlotte Observer. All report that, although it has resulted in fewer comments, it has also raised the level of civility in a remarkable way.

In an ideal world, we would edit and approve every reader comment before posting it online, but the time and expense to hire enough editors to do that on a timely basis outweighs the benefits.

A second consideration for us is liability. Courts have indicated that if our regular practice is to edit the comments before they are posted, we risk being found liable if those comments are defamatory.

Because everything in the paper is edited, we bear the ultimate responsibility for statements that appear there.

Those who oppose Facebook commenting generally make three arguments:

1. “You are taking away my right to free speech.” Not true. You can still comment; you just have to sign in using your Facebook account. We also expect commenters to follow our guidelines, which means they must stay on topic, be civil and avoid name-calling.

Newspapers have always been a place for people to express their thoughts about the issues of the day. But if you’re going to comment on our site, you’ll have to play by our rules.

2. “I’m afraid that if I can’t comment anonymously, something bad might happen. I might lose my job.” Every story on our site includes links that allow users to pass on tips to the newsroom. Many do so anonymously. Those tips are not posted.

3. “I don’t like Facebook, and I’m not going to support them.’’ Although Facebook is not a perfect solution, the platform’s size and reach make it the most efficient way to solve the problems that come with anonymous comments. Facebook is the most-used social media platform in the nation, with an estimated 50 percent of the population having an account.

I expect I’ll get a lot of response to this column, and some of it will be from those who wish to spew hate beneath the cloak of anonymity. I won’t be responding to any of those comments. But sign your name and I’ll be glad to engage.

We want to make our digital sites a safer place for people to debate the issues of the day.

Jim Witt is executive editor of the Star-Telegram. 817-390-7704 Twitter: @jimelvis

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