The Quad City Times — an Illinois-Iowa newspaper I read regularly during my 12 years as a reporter, photographer and columnist in the Land of Lincoln — shut down its online comments section of its web site, effective today.
Executive Editor Autumn Phillips pulled the plug after reading comments on a story about a man fatally stabbed the night before in a local park.
“Below the LeClaire Park story was a growing string of comments — a veiled racist remark about Democratic voters, a derogatory comment about police, then something about Hillary Clinton taking our guns away,” Phillips wrote.
There were mixed-race jokes posted on a story about a burglary, and on a story about a police standoff in Davenport there was a string of comments about what an idiot President Obama is with questions about his citizenship.
I’ve been watching this for years at newspapers across the country. It’s not unique to the Quad-City Times, though the prejudices vary by region. Every once in a while, I see a lively, on-topic debate. In a sea of ridiculousness, hate speech and online bullying, I occasionally read thoughtful perspectives I hadn’t considered. Unfortunately, that isn’t the norm and it’s been a very long time since I believed in the dream media companies once had about providing a town square for the community to meet and use our journalism as a launching pad to connect, debate and bring about change.
I’m sick of it. I’m shutting off the online comments on qctimes.com.
The actions by Phillips have the full support of the paper’s publisher, Deb Anselmn, who came to the Quad City Times from an Indiana newspaper that discontinued comments “long ago in an effort toward civil discourse.”
By and large, Phillips notes, public comments on too many online sites have become “a sea of ridiculousness, hate speech and online bullying.”
As an online publisher who put his first news web site up on the World Wide Web in 1994, I applaud the decision by Phillips.
She is not alone. National Public Radio shuttered its online comments sections, effective today.
“After much experimentation and discussion, we’ve concluded that the comment sections on NPR.org stories are not providing a useful experience for the vast majority of our users,” wrote Scott Montgomery, NPR’s managing editor for digital news.
The Miami Herald ended anonymous comments in 2013, requiring readers who want to comment to use Facebook, which requires use of names, to post comments to stories.
“We had a big group of trolls who would do nasty things,” said Herald managing editor Rick Hirch.
Writes Rem Rieder of USA Today:
Trouble is, the dialogue on many sites has been poisoned from the get-go by the ugly, mean-spirited verbiage of a small but often prolific band of anonymous posters. It’s a lot easier to call names and pick fights when nobody knows who you are.
“The debate quickly devolves into rants, ” Steve Doig, the Knight Chair in Journalism at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communications at Arizona State University, told Reider in 2013. “It spirals down the drain.”
The Roanoke Times went to Facebook account verification of posters some time ago. People still disagree but they do so with their names (and sometimes their pictures) attached.
In their print editions, newspapers routinely require phone numbers and other information. Letters to the editors require the use of names.
My web sites require verification of email addresses and other checks before comments are cleared. Those who have posted before can comment without moderation.
Is that enough? Probably not in today’s toxic environment. I’m considering requiring Facebook verification for those who post.
It’s time to put a stop to online racism, harassment, hate and bullying.