Watchdog Blog

Herb Strentz: A Columnist Deals with Anonymous Comments

Posted at 7:16 pm, December 5th, 2010
Herb Strentz Mug

DES MOINES–The convoluted policy of the Des Moines Register that allows readers to post often scurrilous or racist comments on line — under the cover of anonymity — took still another odd turn on Sunday.

Columnist Rekha Basu wrote that, henceforth, people who want to comment on her writing will have to do so by name and on her Facebook page. No anonymous postings will be allowed as part of the paper’s on-line “story chat.” “Story chat” is the Register’s homey sobriquet for frequently venomous attacks upon people in the news, reporters and whoever else draws the ire of the anonymous posters. Basu explained:

“This change, an experiment with my column, is the upshot of discussions I’ve been having for several years with editors here. Here’s how it’ll work. Instead of posting comments on the Register website’s story chat, you’ll post them to my Facebook page, which uses real names. I figure those who are proud of their words won’t be scared away, so discussions can be more thoughtful, more civil and more reflective of the kind of world we want to live in.”

Over the years, Basu has been one of the critics of the problems posed by “story chat.” So has the paper’s chief investigative reporter, Clark Kauffman, who has said that paper’s policy on anonymous posting turns vulnerable people in the news — rape victims, people on welfare, minority group members — into “human piñatas” who are whacked by the anonymous posters.

Publisher Laura Hollingsworth has acknowledged that she doesn’t like “story chat” because of the lack of civility it invites and allows, if not condones.

Four former managing editors of the paper (and I) have written to Hollingsworth and editor Carolyn Washburn, calling for an end to the anonymity — an action that a few other newspapers around the nation have taken because they got fed up with the viciousness of it all.

The Register has dealt with “story chat” problems by removing abusive postings and apparently by not allowing any postings at all when it is anticipated that a news story will draw fire from lunatics. For example, a feature on the relatively new Grinnell College president, who is black and gay, did not allow any “story chat” contributions.

Washburn has said that, for one thing, “story chat” works to generate news tips and insights to stories and community issues. And she has said it will take some time to address issues raised by critics.

The Basu ”experiment” may suggest some answers, but it also raises questions including whether the choice of opting out of “story chat” will be extended to other columnists and reporters

Maybe it should be offered as an option, too, to those likely to become “human piñatas.”

One Response to “A Columnist Deals with Anonymous Comments”

  1. David Barker says:

    I would like to see papers provide readers with an option to display non-anonymous comments only. That way, there is a chance that a reasonable conversation could take place as more people ignore the anonymous posts.

Comments are closed.

The website is no longer being updated. Watchdog stories have a new home in Nieman Reports.