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A Post With No Name

The suggestion box: a place where grievances are aired, opinions are expressed and once in awhile, an actual suggestion is made. Many offices have one that remains almost entirely empty until the promise of anonymity is introduced. The suggestion box is then usually steadily filled with complaints and ideas – and almost always from anonymous sources.

Today, the comments section Web sites can be seen is as online suggestion boxes. Almost all sites have them but not everyone agrees that it should be a place for anonymous users.

Connie Schultz, a columnist for the Cleveland Plain Dealer, recently criticized the practice of allowing anonymous commentors on news Web sites. Her argument stemmed from the recent revelation that one of the PlainDealer.com’s most prolific anonymous commentors came from an e-mail address registered to a local judge the newspaper frequently covered.

The Plain Dealer’s editor was spurred to investigate the identity of the commentor after she made personal attacks against a reporter and it would have been a conflict of interest for the newspaper to keep secret her identity.

Anonymous commenting, Schultz noted, is in direct conflict with the newspaper’s otherwise consistent policy of transparency. She adds that most news organizations allow anonymous comments yet won’t even consider running something in the “Letters to the Editors” section of the print edition unless it’s accompanied by a name.  With the amount of nameless visitors posting venomous material in the comments section, it’s understandable how Schultz would opine for a ban on anonymous comments.

But Jack McElroy of the Knoxville News Sentinel makes his case on the other side of the argument. He argues that anonymous commentors are part of a new medium – the online forum – that is inherently more spontaneous and less regimented. Unlike the “Letters to the Editor” section, the online venue is meant to be conversational and less formal.

He also notes that the journalism profession labels anonymity as almost dirty.  McElroy then cites Deep Throat as the most famous example of a news story relying on anonymous sources. In some cases, anonymity is essential to the newsgathering process. As for his own newspaper, he noted that, “The News Sentinel tries to keep the comments civil while still erring in favor of free speech.”

What do you think? Should comments made anonymously, despite their content, automatically be ignored as invalid? Should news organizations put their comment section through a vetting process to ensure only certain content remains?

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