Some comments about comments

CBCNews.ca relaunched a couple of weekends ago with a new design and several feature changes. I've been taking in emails regularly since, almost all of them on one topic: Its approach to online comments.

Handling online comments is challenging. News organizations want to nurture conversations, but it doesn't take much for discussion threads to degenerate. And even though the newsroom doesn't create the content, substandard discussions can have an impact on an organization's reputation and image.

To minimize harm and maximize quality, CBC News is taking a position many others take: It's limiting the number of stories that permit comments and continuing to screen them before they appear.

So the door isn't fully open. It's a bit of a screen door. Watch your step as you enter.
With that policy comes drawbacks. It's clearly tough to decide which stories have access and which are closed to comments. Moderating comments means delaying their appearance, so there isn't quite real-time discussion. As you would expect, people complain when they can't post. Many feel CBC should not be so judgmental. They consider it manipulation by omission.

My mandate to review public complaints doesn't reach into the realm of public comments unless CBC News uses them in its journalism. But for the record, my early reading is that CBC is doing a very good job keeping the dialogues going. Comments are open on a wide range of stories. It is listening and responding to complaints when commenting is suppressed. It is prepared to fine-tune. In short, it's good public service in difficult circumstances.

In an ideal world, the identities of commenters would be verified on every piece of content. People would contribute responsibly to discussions in exchange for access to the platform.

But some time ago journalism crossed that bridge, or burned it, by permitting anonymous comments and trying to filter troublesome remarks. The process of verification can be tedious and is perceived by many newsrooms as an impediment to users instead of an investment in them.

I suspect, though, that anonymity is often at the heart of why discussions deteriorate, because it enables a free shot with no accountability. Too often the Internet is littered with unattributed personal attacks. Lost in this is the principle of anonymity that protects those who truly need protection.

I worry for journalism when the discipline of verification erodes. I would prefer full verification of identities when there aren't excellent reasons (and there can be) to shield them. The public is best served when we know who is commenting, because we can more easily understand why.

A technical solution would be to post comments by logging into the site using Facebook Connects, where largely you must be who you are. But that would tie CBC to a particular social network, not a healthy situation, and I would imagine many CBC online users neither have nor crave a Facebook account. Until an easy-to-use verification system emerges, its approach appears the best option available.