Tuesday, Sept. 21, 2010 | 7:18 p.m.
One of the downsides of the Internet is that its anonymous nature lends itself to naked hostility.
You need look no further than the pages of this newspaper’s website to see it. Whether the story is about Harry Reid or Sharron Angle, hospital care, the UNLV football team or just a new business opening, there often are comments from readers that seem, well, less than civilized.
Yet it’s the frank, sometimes mean, nature of those comments that makes the Web such an intriguing place to capture the pulse of the people.
The trick, at least for newspaper sites, is figuring out how to maintain the responsible community dialogue that has been a part of our industry’s DNA since the first American newspapers, while still harnessing the energy of the Web.
Even at a time when you could be hanged for what you said in public, writers like Ben Franklin and Thomas Paine stood behind what they wrote. But in nearly every way fathomable, the world today is a different place for newspapers and their websites.
At the Sun, we think community dialogue is a vitally important part of our mission, and we are determined to figure out how to make reader comments on our website more about discussion and less about name calling. With this in mind, the Sun is debuting a commenting policy and software today at LasVegasSun.com.
The Sun is not unique in this regard. Newspapers across the country — from The New York Times to the Muskegon Chronicle — have in the past year grappled with and written about the increasingly vitriolic nature of anonymous comments attached to the bottom of most news stories.
There is no set way to deal with these challenges. Some news sites charge for the ability to comment on Web stories. Some require folks to use their “real” e-mail addresses. While others simply eliminate the ability for the community to comment on stories.
In April, the Sun began a test, requiring anyone posting a message to one of our political stories to use their Facebook account in the hope that if folks were asked to give up their anonymity, they might be a little nicer. It worked, sort of.
The Sun is continuing to refine its policy, driven by the belief that community discourse, regardless of point of view, doesn’t have to be hateful even when it’s spirited.
That brings us to the changes we’re currently making: Starting today, you can no longer be anonymous and comment directly on Sun stories.
To comment directly beneath the body of the story you must verify your account.
Doing this is simple: If you’re logged in to our site, go to a comment form at the bottom of a story and click the button that says “verify identity.” From there, you can either provide basic personal information that, with the exception of your first and last name, will not be shared with anyone. Or you can click on the “connect with Facebook” button and follow the prompts.
If you don’t have a Facebook account, a member of the Sun’s newsroom staff will contact you to verify your information, similar to how we verify the identities of people who write letters to the editor at the Sun. If you do have a Facebook account, the authorization is immediate. Using this method will also give you one-click login access to the Sun through your Facebook account.
In whatever way you verify your account, none of your information — beyond your first and last name — will be released or sold. If you use the Facebook option, we can’t see any of your contact information, friend lists or posts on the popular social networking site that aren’t already publicly available.
We also aren’t going to send you any spam. Our only objective is to verify that you are who you say you are.
However, we realize that not all of our commenters want to give up their anonymity, which is why Franklin signed some of his letters as Silence Dogood and Thomas Paine was anonymous in the first editions of “Common Sense.” There are certain circumstances where anonymity can even be valuable.
You can still comment on our site in an anonymous fashion, much like our site has worked for about the past three years. You just can’t comment directly on our story pages.
Attached to most stories on LasVegasSun.com is now a link in the commenting area that says “see all comments.” It will take you to a separate page that includes comments from both verified and anonymous posters. The comments on this page will disappear from our stories within 72 hours.
We don’t know that this is the final solution in elevating the discussion at LasVegasSun.com, but we do think it’s a step in the right direction.
There is a high road here, we hope you’ll take it with us.
Rob Curley is the senior editor for digital for the Las Vegas Sun and Greenspun Media Group.