Policy on Web site story comments annoys reader

1/27/2013
BY JACK LESSENBERRY
BLADE OMBUDSMAN

R. Gregory Stein is one of several readers who are upset at The Blade’s policy regarding posting comments electronically on stories that appear on the newspaper’s Web site.

“It is outrageous that you continue to require readers who want to make comments … to have a Facebook account,” he wrote me.

“It is very frustrating to me that I cannot comment on Blade stories immediately without being a Facebook account holder,“ he complained, adding, “I greatly appreciated having the opportunity to make responsible comments to online Blade articles prior to the policy to require Facebook ... I refused to open a Facebook account then and feel even more strongly about it now.”

What does your ombudsman think?

At first glance, Mr. Stein’s complaint seems reasonable. Why should anyone have to use a “social media” service unaffiliated with this newspaper to comment on stories that appear in The Blade?

However, like it or not, we live today not just in the age of the Internet but of the so-called “social media” platforms, of which Facebook is by far the most popular.

How popular? The service reports that a stunning 54 percent of the entire American population — 167 million people — now have Facebook accounts. Joining the service doesn’t cost anything and is easy for anyone who knows how to get online.

And the reason responsible editors like it is that you cannot “flame” writers and stories with anonymous, hateful comments.

Kurt Franck, the executive editor of The Blade, said, “We moved to Facebook commenting last March to improve the quality of online discussions. With Facebook, those making comments must be registered with a real name — not an anonymous screen name.”

That means, he added, that “we are able to reduce the name-calling and inappropriate and/or abusive comments.”

Blade Web editors still moderate comments after they are posted and grossly offensive ones are removed, but there seems to be far less of those. “The level of public discourse has certainly improved. We have been able to significantly reduce those ugly comments riddled with racism and vulgarity,” Mr. Franck said.

That more than makes sense to your ombudsman. I am not a big user of social media. But I strongly believe that anyone who is attacked in the media deserves the right to be confronted openly by their accuser and their real name known.

I don’t like stories that depend on anonymous sources, and I think even less of printing anonymous attacks on anybody. Most journalists agree, and more and more newspapers are insisting that readers who want to comment on stories use Facebook to do so.

Now there are some people who still aren’t comfortable with cyberspace, and if Mr. Stein refuses on principle to join Facebook, I respect that. And that doesn’t mean that The Blade is silencing him. He still has the option to write or email a letter to the editor.

‚óŹ

Speaking of which … Gary Stechschulte, a reader who seems to deeply despise the Obama Administration, is upset because he isn’t being published often enough.

“My last published letter was on Oct. 16, 2012. Since then I have not been able to get anything published. Could this be because The Blade and its editor, David Kushma, endorsed Barack Obama and now don’t want to publish any conservative or libertarian viewpoints since they are in direct conflict with the President?”

That charge doesn’t seem to make any sense. It is true that The Blade strongly endorsed President Obama’s re-election on its editorial page. But that was scarcely a radical view.

The President won a majority of the vote in Ohio, Michigan, and nationwide. Throughout the campaign, The Blade ran numerous letters criticizing the administration, plus columnists such as Charles Krauthammer who have no love for the President and his policies.

The newspaper has kept doing so since then. Actually, if The Blade was engaged in some secret campaign to suppress dissent, it would have made more sense to censor opinions before the election.

After all, President Obama is now serving his second term and can never run again. But there doesn’t seem to me that there is any censorship.

When asked about this, Mr. Kushma said: “We continue to publish reader letters and other commentaries from all points of the political spectrum on our Pages of Opinion. Many of them criticize President Obama and his supporters. We are also working to increase the number of different voices represented. So some of our more prolific letter writers may not be appearing as frequently, but readers will still hear from them.” Makes sense to your ombudsman.

And while I make no decisions about what letters should run, I can offer this advice to frustrated frequent letter writers:

Vary your method, your language, and your theme. If you keep sending letters that more or less all sound the same, editors will have less incentive to put them out there for the world to see.

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.