Monday 15 November 2010

Anonymous postings are taking a pasting but don’t let abuse drown out the conversation on the web

This is a piece I've written for TheMediaBriefing website about the issue of anonymous postings:

It’s the most heartless post I’ve ever read on a news website.

The St. Petersburg Times in the US ran a story last September about a cyclist killed in a late night hit-and-run accident. The victim was named as Neil Alan Smith who was on his way home from his job as a dishwasher at the Crab Shack restaurant. He died in hospital six days after the accident. He was 48.

Shortly after the paper announced Mr. Smith's death on its website, a reader posted this comment: "A man who is working as a dishwasher at the Crab Shack at the age of 48 is surely better off dead."

Not surprisingly, web editors removed the comment, deeming it an offensive and insensitive insult to a dead man's friends and family. The comment spurred the Times to make Mr. Smith the subject of story to show, in the paper's words, "that every life matters".

The poisonous posting about a fatal accident shows how degraded the much heralded openness of the “conversation” everyone can have on the web has become. Some news websites have already decided enough is enough. The Independent led the way in May this year and said on the free speech free-for-all for anonymous posters was to end. It claimed: “Websites have been encouraging cowardice. They allow users to hide behind virtual anonymity to make hasty, ill-researched and often intemperate comments regardless of any consideration for personal hurt or corporate damage.”

Abuse, bigotry and libellous comments that would never be tolerated on the letters page of a newspaper or magazine are the downside of anonymous postings. But there is an upside which I discovered while doing a piece on the issue of anonymous postings for InPublishing magazine.

Talking to online editors of regional newspapers, B2B magazines and industry websites brought home to me how important anonymous postings can be in generating stories as well as fleshing them out with authentic comments from insiders. For the local press some of the most valuable comments are left anonymously, such as tip-offs, comments by staff at big employers or local authorities who can’t give their names without risking their jobs.

Some professionals, such as social workers, have it in their contracts that they must not speak to the press. They have to post anonymously when going on the website of B2B magazines covering their sector.

One of the good things about industry websites is that they can put up a story based on an anodyne press release about the “mutually agreed” departure of a managing director only for the real story to come out in the comments made by anonymous posters working for the company.

While mainstream news sites are looking at ways to cut out nasty anonymous postings, it is the media closest to its readers, such as the local press, B2B magazines and industry websites which see the real value in them for generating content and whistleblowing.

We should not let the abusive bigots kill the conversation.

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