Last month, the Toronto Star made an interesting decision concerning so-called “user-generated content”: It decided it would no longer be publishing anonymous or pseudonymous web comments on its letters-to-the-editor page. Such “reverse publishing” is being used by a lot of newspapers who want to appear all hip and cool and stuff, and are desperate to increase traffic to their horrible websites.
The main argument, which was also expressed by many people inside the Star’s newsroom (they even circulated a petition about it), is that printing these comments alongside letters to the editor essentially creates a double standard: Letters to the editor must be signed and verified if submitted by email or mail, but don’t have to be if they’re posted in an online forum.
It’s a valid argument, but it ignores the big secret about letters to the editor: The verification process for “real” letters isn’t much of a verification process at all.
Many newspapers, especially smaller ones, don’t even check that the person whose name appears at the bottom of the letter is in fact the person who wrote it. They just copy and paste from their email inbox and assume that if there’s a full name that doesn’t read “Anita Bath”, it’s probably legitimate.
Larger newspapers, like the Star, require readers to send their phone number, and an editor or secretary calls them up and verifies their name and whether they wrote the letter. There’s no exchange of ID, no looking names up in a database, just a phone call. It works mainly because very few people are going to go through that kind of trouble just to get a fake letter into the newspaper.
Still, I think the change is a good one, if only because seeing online handles like “geeko79”, “No McCain fries for John McCain” and “Fagstein” attached to grammatically-incorrect texts in a supposedly respectable newspaper looks ridiculous.
The policy change doesn’t affect the website; people will still be able to post with silly pseudonyms there, though that’s not what public editor Kathy English would have decided:
I would prefer the Star demand real names of those who comment online. I’ve been told that’s a near-impossible expectation in the online environment. I don’t buy that.
Of course, online faces the same problem. Restrict it to verified names, and you cut off most discussion and spent lots of time verifying IDs. The more moderation controls you have, the less commentary you have and the less active the forum becomes.
I’ve always found it curious that each of my letters to the Post, Globe and Gazette have been published without so much as a phone call or email to check up on me.
The Citizen however, has called me each time.
The Toronto Star phoned me when I had a letter published; the Toronto Sun did not.
As for requiring full, real names on-line, the main argument against that, in my opinion, is that you’d lose well-thought-out, moving statements from people who would rather not be identified: sex-abuse victims, recovering drug addicts, and so on. That outweighs all the timewasters who troll newspaper boards.