The Sacramento Bee test: Is it possible to comment civilly online?

Chances are that if you want to comment on the Sacramento Bee’s new online comments policy, you can’t right now. At least, not at the Bee.

After about a month of halting all comments by readers, the newspaper this week unveiled a beta version of its new policy. For now, a very limited number — 500 — loyal subscribers to the Bee will be allowed to comment on the website’s articles. And only by invitation, by giving their full names — which would appear with their comments — and, at least for now, a social media link. Over time, the program would be expanded to nonsubscribers.

The concern is the dismayingly coarse and hate-filled comments that are at least sprinkled through responses on many articles, and that sometimes dominate. The insults and nastiness can be enough to make one’s heart sink. Whatever happened to our parents’ lessons about basic courtesy?

When the most vituperative comments appear, they tend to polarize the discussion; the readers who want to engage in thoughtful debate are often pushed aside for what becomes a series of rants about “libtards” and various unflattering adjectives directed at Sarah Palin. The comments section devolves into attacks. One study found that even when the most vilifying comments have little to do with the substance of the article, they nonetheless change readers’ perceptions of the news.

In a way, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The attractive part of online comments is the democratization of journalism. No longer does the published perception belong solely to the writer of the article; it belongs to whoever in the world has access to the Internet.

The Bee is betting on the idea that having a name attached to a social media account will mean more responsible comments; that people are less likely to come forth with the most extreme claims and invective when they can’t be anonymous. But the Bee’s new system can’t guarantee that the names are real; people have been known to set up fake Facebook accounts just to keep the slurs going. It’s never been clear to me how and why people find the time to engage in this much masquerade, just for the sake of some venting, but they obviously do. Still, the Bee’s policy is likely to cut down on irresponsible, anonymous rants.

But then readers who cannot afford to be publicly known would find it impossible to comment. These could include teachers who want to complain about school reform, parents who want to complain about their children’s teachers and nurses who want to complain about the inner workings of hospitals. On the other hand, when such people comment anonymously, should we believe them? How do we know that’s a parent, a doctor, a postal worker, a farmer, if he or she won’t give us any identification?

Comments from all are still posted at the L.A. Times (with a couple of caveats, such as no advertising, no foul language). So what do you think of the Bee’s new policy? Does the level of public discourse on our or other websites bother you? Should comments remain a free-for-all? And if not, what’s the best way to fix it, or at least make it better?

Perhaps we can even keep that discussion civil.


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