Friday, June 13, 2008

Blog Comments on Newspaper Site Should be Signed, Just like Letters to the Editor

Letters to the editor are the most read, discussed and cussed portions of the newspaper. The same can now be said for comments posted to newspaper stories or blogs online.

Offering an editorial forum (printed page or online window) is one way a newspaper helps to preserve the inalienable right of people in a free society to discuss, question and challenge actions and utterances of our government and of our public institutions.

Journalists uphold the right to speak unpopular opinions and the privilege to either agree or disagree with the majority.

One way that can be done is through the publication of letters to the editor or the publishing of comments to stories or blogs online. Both are printed in order to allow readers an opportunity to express views differing from those of the newspaper or ones expressed by individuals in published articles or other letters.

There are, however, two types of letters or online comments that are damaging to a newspaper's reputation as well as the public trust in what they publish: letters with libelous material and anonymous letters (or posts).

Not running libelous letters is a policy universally agreed to by newspapers. The same policy should be applied to blog and story comments even though the courts have not yet ruled on this issue.

Research shows that running an anonymous letter to the editor is an easy way to get you or the newspaper sued because they are more likely to be filled with misinformation or libel. Because an anonymous letter (or online blog entry or story comment) cannot be identified with a person or group, it has limited value.

As a communication professional focused on helping restore the public trust in the news media, my recommendation is that anonymous letters to the editor should go straight to the shredder. Anonymous comments or blogs to stories or columns on a newspaper's website should not be allowed either for many of the same reasons that a newspaper would not publish unsigned letters to the editor.

If a citizen has something truthful and valid to say, they should write a letter (or comment) without trying to harm others and let the readers evaluate what they have to say in the light of who they are.

Often times, the names of the writer reveal other motives behind a letter. For example, a chairman of one county political party lashes out against the fundraising practices of another.

As a former weekly newspaper editor, I had a saying about letters to the editor -- “A person of integrity does not have to hide when they speak, or write.”

So here is the bottom line: in order to maintain the public trust in what is printed (on paper or online), a newspaper's policy should be to pitch anonymous letters to the editor (and not allow anonymous online posts).

If it's worth saying or putting in writing, it's worth signing. Otherwise, it's worth nothing.


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