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Newspaper Takes A Stand On Anonymous Commenters

Jul 31, 2012
Originally published on July 31, 2012 7:09 pm

The Internet is slowly becoming a less anonymous place. YouTube has a new policy encouraging commenters to use their real names, and many news sites have switched to a login system run by Facebook.

News sites that still allow anonymous comments are finding there are legal risks. The Spokesman-Review newspaper in Spokane, Wash., has spent the last few months trying to protect the identity of a reader who saw a photo of a Republican Party official in Idaho named Tina Jacobson, and then posted a disparaging comment.

The paper's city editor, Addy Hatch, practically has the comment memorized, given the amount of trouble it's caused.

"Is that the missing $10,000 from Kootenai County Central Committee funds stuffed inside Tina's blouse?" Hatch recites.

Besides insulting Jacobson's appearance, the comment suggested she stole party funds. Jacobson decided to sue the commenter for defamation — and took the paper to court to make it reveal the person's name.

The paper resisted — on principle, Hatch says.

"You know, it's against the grain for a newspaper to give up anonymous sources of any kind," Hatch says. "And we just felt like we had to take a stand."

The Promise Of Comment Boards, Often Unmet

But many journalists — even those on the Spokesman-Review staff — aren't so sure a newspaper should go to the mat to protect an anonymous commenter.

Shawn Vestal, a columnist at the paper, wrote a column comparing anonymous commenters to monkeys "throwing poop" — a column that earned him a few negative comments of his own. One phone call from a reader degenerated into a shouting match.

But that's the whole point, Vestal says.

"I feel, very acutely, what might be waiting for me on the other end of that phone on the morning that a column runs," Vestal says. "And I think that's good for me, to have to answer for what I might say."

The debate over anonymous comments has been building in newsrooms for a decade. Old-school journalists argue the optimistic predictions of Internet comment boards brimming with the wisdom of the crowd haven't panned out. Instead, they say, news organizations tarnish their reputations by hosting comments that are often snarky and factually inaccurate.

"I don't begrudge anyone their right to say anything they want to say," Vestal says. "But I don't know that it's our job to go to court to protect their right to say it anonymously."

But Dave Oliveria, who runs Huckleberries Online, the Spokesman-Review blog where the offending comment appeared, feels differently.

Does Free Speech Require Anonymity?

"To have free speech in this community, I think you have to have anonymity," Oliveria argues.

Huckleberries Online covers Coeur d'Alene and northern Idaho, small communities where there's a constant battle between the factions of the dominant Republican Party.

"In this town, there's so much infighting, if some of these folks identified themselves, they couldn't make these comments," Oliveria says. "I have a lot of folks online here that are in a lot of key positions in the community."

If his bosses at the Spokesman-Review required real names, he says, it would kill his blog — and deprive the community of a crucial forum.

But Oliveria also acknowledges he can only keep that discussion constructive by spending a lot of time monitoring it, and blocking the trolls.

"When you follow comments as closely as I do, I can tell by the sound who a person is," he says. "They can keep changing their IP address, and I keep blocking 'em. And it frustrates them far more than it frustrates me, because I'm on there all the time."

Oliveria knows that this kind of close monitoring is expensive for bigger news sites, and he's not even sure it will be sustainable in northern Idaho after he retires.

A Commenter, Revealed

But as it turns out, going to court to protect his commenter won't be necessary — at least for now. When the Spokesman-Review decided not to appeal a judge's order to identify the commenter, that commenter outed herself.

She's Linda Cook, a long-time Republican activist.

"Compared to some comments I've seen — even on Huckleberries — mine was mild," Cook says of her post.

Cook stands by her claim about the money, but not the way she originally phrased it online.

"The one thing I regret is that I made her appearance an issue," Cook says. "That, I wouldn't have said. Everything else, you bet."

Cook says she hopes online anonymity isn't going away. But she also acknowledges that you think twice about how you say something when your name is on it.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.

The Internet is becoming a less anonymous place, especially when it comes to the ubiquitous comments section. YouTube has a new policy encouraging commenters to use their real names, and many news sites have switched to a login system run by Facebook. For news sites that still allow anonymous comments there are legal risks.

NPR's Martin Kaste reports on one comment that recently landed a newspaper in court.

MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: The Spokesman-Review newspaper in Spokane, Washington, has spent the last few months trying to protect the identity of a reader who saw a photo of a Republican Party official in Idaho named Tina Jacobson, and then posted this comment.

ADDY HATCH: Is that the missing $10,000 from Kootenai County Central Committee funds stuffed inside Tina's blouse?

KASTE: The paper's city editor, Addy Hatch, practically has the comment memorized, given the amount of trouble it's caused. Besides insulting Jacobson's appearance, it suggested she stole party funds. Jacobson decided to sue the commenter for defamation and she took the paper to court to make it cough up the person's name. The paper resisted on principle, Hatch says.

HATCH: You know, it's against the grain for a newspaper to give up anonymous sources of any kind. And we just felt like we had to take a stand.

KASTE: But should a newspaper really go to the mat to protect an anonymous commenter? A lot of journalists aren't so sure. One of the Spokesman-Review's own, Shawn Vestal, wrote a column comparing anonymous commenters to monkeys, quote, "throwing poop," a column that earned him a few negative comments of his own. One phone call from a reader degenerated into a shouting match. But he says that's the whole point.

SHAWN VESTAL: I feel, very acutely, what might be on the other end of that phone waiting for me the morning that a column runs. And I think that's good for me to have to answer for what I might say.

KASTE: It's a debate that's been building in newsrooms for a decade now. Old-school journalists say the optimistic predictions of Internet comment boards brimming with the wisdom of the crowd have not panned out. Instead, they say, news organizations tarnish their reputations by hosting comments that are often snarky and sometimes factually inaccurate.

VESTAL: And I don't begrudge anyone their right to say anything they want to say. But I don't know that it's our job to go to court to protect their right to say it anonymously.

DAVE OLIVERIA: To have free speech in this community, I think you need to have anonymity.

KASTE: Dave Oliveria is on the other side of the debate. He runs Huckleberries Online, The Spokesman-Review blog where the offending comment appeared. It covers Coeur d'Alene and northern Idaho, small communities where there's a constant battle between the factions of the dominant Republican Party.

OLIVERIA: In this town there's so much infighting, if some of these folks were identified themselves, they couldn't make these comments. I have a lot of folks online here that are in a lot of key positions in the community.

KASTE: If his bosses at the Spokesman-Review required real names, he says, it would kill his blog and deprive the community of a crucial forum. But he also admits that the only way to keep the discussion constructive is for him to spend a lot of time monitoring it, and blocking the trolls.

OLIVERIA: When you follow comments as closely as I do, I can tell by the sound who a person is. They can keep changing their IP address and I keep blocking them. And it frustrates them far more than it does me, 'cause I'm on there all the time.

KASTE: Oliveria knows that this kind of close monitoring is expensive for bigger news sites, and he's not even sure it'll be sustainable in northern Idaho after he retires. But in the meantime, it now turns out he at least won't have to go to court to protect his commenter's identity.

LINDA COOK: Compared to some comments I've seen, even on Huckleberries, mine was mild.

KASTE: Here she is, a long-time Republican activist named Linda Cook. After the paper decided not to appeal a judge's order to give her up, she outed herself. She stands by her claim about the money but not the way she phrased it online.

COOK: The one thing I regret is that I made her appearance an issue. That I wouldn't have said. Everything else, you bet.

KASTE: Cook says she hopes online anonymity is not going away. But she also acknowledges that you do think twice about how you say something when your name is on it.

Martin Kaste, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.