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News Sites Take Issue with Anonymity
By: Joe Eitel
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    Table of Contents:
  • News Sites Take Issue with Anonymity
  • The End of an Era
  • A Not-So-Uncommon Controversy

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    News Sites Take Issue with Anonymity

    (Page 1 of 3 )

    Initially, one of the greatest allures of the Internet was the anonymity it offered. To the delight (and dismay) of many, the Internet became a nameless, faceless world in which you were never sure who you were dealing with, who you were chatting with, or if anyone was really who they said they were. No longer. This article examines the change, the reasons behind it, and why newspapers find online anonymity particularly problematic.

    Slowly but surely, this type of anonymity is being chipped away, and it should come as no surprise that some of the biggest culprits are social networking sites. Remaining anonymous online has become close to impossible; private profiles can be hacked, personal photos can be transmitted, personal information sold to marketing companies, and with the most basic information, such as name and state, a complete stranger can type your name into a people finding search engine and find out everything from your phone number to the names of your parents and siblings.

    It could be argued, however, that there is one remaining frontier left for anonymous everything: comments. Every type of publication online, from blogs to major newspapers like the New York Times, allows its readers to make anonymous comments on the material printed. Some sites now require an e-mail address, usually unprinted, but a large majority only require that the user type in a name and their comment. With a click of a button, their voice can be heard.

    Journalists Weigh In

    As lovely as this sounds in theory, many problems have arisen as a result of this kind of free for all. For one, Internet trolls abound. We've all encountered them on message boards, in chat rooms, and in the above mentioned comments section of our favorite online publications. They're the ones who make offensive, off-putting, off-topic remarks just to get everyone riled up (and off topic), and it usually works. This won't be happening for too much longer, especially as major news sites are concerned -- and surprisingly, the charge is being led by many prominent journalists who usually champion freedom of speech.

    One such journalist is Leonard Pitts Jr., a Miami Herald columnist who, in a recent piece entitled "Anonymity Brings out the Worst Instincts," cited some very compelling reasons as to why news sites should finally put an end to anonymous comments. When referring to his very own paper, the Herald, Pitts wrote that "anonymity has made comment streams havens for a level of crudity, bigotry, meanness and plain nastiness that shocks the tattered remnants of our propriety." He continued, "For every person who offers some trenchant observation on the point at hand, there are a dozen who are so far off point they couldn't find their way back with a compass and road map. For every person who brings up some telling fact, there are a dozen whose 'facts' are fantasies freshly made up to suit the exigencies of arguments they otherwise cannot win."

    According to William Grueskin, dean of academic affairs at Columbia's journalism school, "There is a legitimate value in letting people express opinions that may get them in trouble at work or may even offend their neighbors, without having to give their names, but a lot of comment boards turn into the equivalent of a barroom brawl, with most of the participants having blood-alcohol levels of 0.10 or higher," he said. "People who might have something useful to say are less willing to participate in boards where the tomatoes are being thrown."

    According to the dean, there's another major reason so many major news sites are willing to be done with anonymity, despite the wrath they'll probably receive from readers: money. "News organizations were willing to reconsider anonymity in part because comment pages brought in little revenue," Grueskin said. "Advertisers generally do not like to buy space next to opinions, especially incendiary ones."

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