The Anonymous Comment Section revisited

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This is not a new idea. In fact, I wrote this blog six years ago.

At the time I’d been thinking about putting an anonymous blog on the Internet, wrote this and then realized I was simply feeding into exactly what I was criticizing.

It felt hypocritical…and a little stupid.

I stumbled over this missive this morning. The piece originated from a particularly bad moment I had reading the comments section under a provincial political story in the Chronicle Herald.

The comments I read made me angry.

After three years hosting talk radio I think I now have a better appreciation for the value of public opinion. Everyday I enjoyed hearing people sound off on news stories. While I certainly didn’t agree with all our callers, I took the approach that everyone who called had the right to express their position provided they were reasonably respectful and didn’t  wander into territory that would threaten our broadcasting licence.

We also asked that people give their name. Just their first name, but we felt that would help people take some ownership of what they were saying. I also could challenge them if I felt their opinion was offside or particularly unfair.

This is what continues to irritate me about the anonymous comments section on newspaper and other publication’s websites. I truly feel it is in some ways responsible for the diminishing tone of public discourse.

Recently, the New Yorker ran this piece on The Psychology of Online Comments which makes the case that comments enrich the reader’s experience and allow us as readers to interact more deeply with the subject matter. Or do we just care more about what we think than what the writer thinks?

In any event, below is the blog I wrote some six years ago…and didn’t publish.

For the sake of transparency and context, at the time I was working as an organizer for the PC Party of Nova Scotia. I suppose I was a little sensitive at the time to the horse-whipping, deserved or not, Rodney MacDonald and the Tory government was taking at the hands of the CH and its “commenters”.

So my apologies in advance to my colleagues…I was feeling a little pissy. Oh and please excuse the Conrad Black-isms. I was hoping to sound smarter than I really am.

I’d be interested to know if you think anything has improved since then in the overall tone of the paper and the value of the anonymous comments section.

My son asked me tonight what I liked about grade five. He was sitting with his pencil poised to answer his “Question of the Week” for school and I must admit I was stumped.

Even with Jeff Foxworthy’s homage to new dimensions in torpidity “Are You Smarter Than A Fifth Grader”, I admit there was nothing I could remember about the fifth grade that stuck with me in any meaningful way. I’m hard pressed even to remember my fifth grade teacher. I’m sure they were another of the public education system’s finest. If you taught fifth grade in Tsawwassen, British Columbia in 1970, one of your students was clearly not paying attention. Fortunately we are probably paying your pension.

I bring up grade five, Jeff Foxworthy and the public education system in the same paragraph because I finally succumbed to reading the “comments” section in the Chronicle Herald.

The Herald, for the uninitiated, is arguably the most cynical, negative newspaper in Canada. Without any competition in the province, this curmudgeonly stain on the fourth estate spreads its message of economic and political doom and gloom from Meat Cove to Tusket without benefit of a single mainstream critical body to challenge its authority. Sad.

That’s not to say there aren’t a few bright lights glimmering through the sludge. Managing editor Dan Leger seems to maintain some sense of dignity about the profession and occasionally has a flash of brilliant prose. Marilla Stephenson appears aware of what is ACTUALLY happening (or at least she guesses better than most) and from time to time Stephen Maher manages to shine a light in an already illuminated crevice of Ottawa.

I would however like to take this opportunity to note that Pat Jollimore, the new editorial cartoonist can not sharpen the pencil of those who’ve shared that page. Given time he may develop but his ideas are sophomoric and rather stupid. It feels like they have hired a junior high student to write political editorials.

It isn’t so much the personnel of the paper that I take umbrage with, it’s the overall tone. Politics in Nova Scotia has been a horrid cesspool of influence peddling in years past and perhaps this “tone” is just an unjustifiably long hangover from a period when newspapers should’ve pulled down politician’s britches and given them a good caning just on principle. But for the love of God people, can we give the poor wretches who throw themselves at the mercy of the electorate a break for at least long enough to attract some decent talent.

Emboldened by a two year journalism degree the “enlightened” (those who would never immerse themselves in the dark side of the political arena) provide commentary or “reportage” on those who are struggling to manage our listless bureaucracy. They do so with with at least some level of civility.

Delve below the line in the “Comment” section and there lives an ignorance almost beyond comprehension. This is the hunting ground for the adult participants on Jeff Foxworthy’s show. Political nescience has penetrated into a deep, unexplored abyss.

These comment sections are “moderated” on the Herald website, presumably by some “moderator” whose job I would liken to licking cat food tins clean at the waste recycling plant. If the stuff that is published is the stuff that makes it through this filter, what mind numbing twaddle must be deleted.

Here’s a challenge I put forward to anyone who wants to make anonymous comment on political stories in the newspaper. Stop. Relax. Think for a moment. Think that your opinion about another individual may have consequence.

Let them ask themselves, “Would I if given the opportunity voice the same opinion face-to-face with the individual I’m criticising?

Let them ask themselves, “Do I know what the f*&k I’m talking about? Have I spent more than 10 seconds thinking about this issue or doing anything to make life better for the people around me by moving this issue forward?”

Let them ask themselves, “What am I doing to improve the life of those in my community in regard to this issue or is there something I can do other than prattling off like some benighted twit in the comment section underneath a story on the Chronicle Herald website?”

It’s good to know the Herald values the opinion of its readers, but someone should let the editors at the paper know that the value of those anonymous bits of catharsis is questionable at best.

Ten second blurbs from indignant partisans and putzes with an ax to grind adds little or nothing to the public debate.

Free speech is our beloved right in this country, but let’s not devalue it to the point that “free” means worthless.

Do you think anonymous comments sections have value?  

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3 thoughts on “The Anonymous Comment Section revisited”

  1. Anonymous = chance to mouth off like a stupid dork. Except for crime investigations, where anonymous tips make sense, no name = 0 credit

  2. The Real Issue- unfortunately over the past twenty years plus the Kings Journalism School with the help of biased left wing instructors such as Steve Kimber created a range of dysfunctional negative reporters with attitude that now pollute all our press outlets. It will take a major adjustment at Kings and improved editorial review before logic, fairness and objective reporting returns to Nova Scotia news publications in the long term. allNova Scotia.com has begun the process of fairness in reporting that others need to follow if we are to dig ourselves out of the negative reporting that is the foundation of Kings Journalism education.

  3. Wow. I believe you have just expressed everything I have been saying for several years now about the CH, and journalism in general in Nova Scotia. The bias is overt and unrepentant, and many of the reader comments actually scare me. In the course of my career I have run into journalistic bias time and time again. I was actually told by one national TV reporter that they weren’t allowed to talk to me. The CH, until this last election, never once printed any comment I offered on any story (under my own name) and indeed never once printed a single press release. One CH reporter complained that it was impossible to get in touch with me and when I pointed out that my website had half a dozen ways to contact me, was rudely informed that she was very busy and didn’t have time to do research. I do find the smaller, local weekly papers to be much more accommodating to varied points of view, but that may soon change.

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