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Published: Sunday, 5/6/2012

COMMENTARY

Anonymous comments with stories raise questions

BY JACK LESSENBERRY
BLADE OMBUDSMAN

Back in the distant misty past -- like, say, 20 years ago -- newspaper stories came to readers in exactly one way.

They were printed on paper and delivered to people's homes or purchased from a newsstand. Readers who felt so strongly about a story that they wanted to comment had two choices:

They could try to call the writer on the phone, or they could write a letter to the editor and hope it would be printed.

Otherwise, that was that. But it is a very different world today. Newspapers are still printed every day, and they still publish letters.

But beyond that, it's a whole new high-tech ballgame. Long before the paper reaches most subscribers, the stories are posted on the Internet -- together with instant comments from readers.

This is a relatively new phenomenon, and different newspapers have different standards and rules for how they permit instant commentaries -- and monitor comments posted on the Internet.

One reader whose email name is "Neighborhood Concerns" was upset because Greg Braknis, The Blade's Web news editor, did not want to look up information unless Mr. or Ms. "Concerns" provided a real name. The reader thought that was unfair and came to me.

Your ombudsman thinks Mr. Braknis is exactly right. Furthermore, I wish every publication adopted the policy of not allowing anyone to post anything online without using his or her name.

That's only fair. Most major newspaper stories have the writer's byline at the top, as do columns. Editorials aren't signed, but that is because they are, by definition, the opinion of the editorial board, and of Editor David Kushma and Publisher and Editor-In-Chief John Robinson Block.

Allowing people to post anonymous comments under stories is unfair to both the writer of the original story and to other readers because they have no way of judging where the comments are coming from, or how reliable the information is.

Sociologists -- or high school teachers, for that matter -- well know that people will say all sorts of outrageous things, especially about other people, if they don't have to take responsibility for them. Democrats are happy to "flame" Republicans, and vice-versa.

There are other good reasons for requiring names as well. "Neighborhood Concerns" complained that Mr. Braknis told him or her that he wouldn't look up information without knowing who the person was.

That's entirely sensible. I don't blame him. For all he knows, Neighborhood Concerns could be a business person seeking information on a competitor. Plus, as the editor said:

"I don't want to carry on a prolonged conversation with someone who refuses to identify himself or herself."

Neither would I. Your ombudsman also has heard from those who write letters to the editor and complain that they don't want to be identified or at least not have their address printed.

Some say that they have been hassled later by readers who disagree with their opinions. Well, as Harry Truman once said, if you can't take the heat, stay out of the kitchen. Of course, there is no excuse for anyone making threatening comments to letter writers, and I've told them in that case, they should contact the police.

Why doesn't the newspaper just use names? Partly because there almost certainly is a John Smith who is a fervent Democrat and a John Smith who is an impassioned Republican.

My guess is if the paper caused people to confuse one with the other, it could have the effect of turning both men into "pit bulls."

‚óŹ

My mission as ombudsman is not to solve delivery problems, but I end up hearing from a lot of people who are missing a paper.

Recently, a couple of customers plaintively complained that there wasn't any way of contacting somebody when a paper doesn't show up on a weekend. That's not so, Clara Intaglia, The Blade's direct sales manager, tells me.

"We are here seven days a week, every day of the year," she explained. "We have an Interactive Voice Response to help the customers, we have voice mail, both of which operate continuously."

The department is manned by live people from 5:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. on weekdays, and from 7 a.m. to 11 a.m. weekends. People in the immediate Toledo area who have a problem can call 419-724-6300. The toll-free long distance number is 800-245-3317 .

Whenever anyone calls -- even the next day -- Ms. Intaglia and her staff work to get them their newspaper. And as we ombudspeople like to say, that sounds fair enough to me.

Anyone who has a concern about fairness or accuracy in The Blade is invited to write me, c/o The Blade, 541 N. Superior St., Toledo, OH 43660, or at my Detroit office, 563 Manoogian Hall, Wayne State University, Detroit, MI 48202; call me at 1-888-746-8610, or email me at OMBLADE@aol.com. I cannot promise to address every question in the newspaper, but I do promise that everyone who contacts me with a serious question will get a personal reply. Reminder, however: If you don't leave me an email address or a phone number, I have no way to get in touch with you.

Jack Lessenberry is a member of the journalism faculty at Wayne State University in Detroit and a former national editor of The Blade.



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