Across the country, editors and publishers continue to experiment with a controversial practice of allowing readers to post unedited comments directly below news stories on newspaper Web sites.
About once a month, we hear of a newspaper that tried it, got “fed up” and then discontinued the practice.
At its best, the practice is an unprecedented celebration of free speech and freedom of the press. It gives the masses a chance to individually comment on a wide range of topics and issues. It opens up the public forum in ways unimagined just a few decades ago.
At its worst, newspapers have found, it breeds hate.
That’s the top reason given when newspaper Web sites discontinue the practice. Software can eliminate “four-letter” words, but technology cannot develop a filter for bad taste and hate.
The Daily News and its naplesnews.com, bonitanews.com and marconews.com Web sites are approaching the two-year mark on our experiment. We have a journalist devoted full-time to reviewing reader postings that are flagged by other readers, then judging whether a posting complies with our user-agreement policy. If it doesn’t, it’s removed. If it does, it stays. Our decisions usually upset someone, but if we err we have decided to err on the side of free speech.
Many comments are upsetting and meant to inflame. Some are illogical and inaccurate. Others are insightful and important.
At times, the posters comprise something of a Greek chorus. In ancient Athens, tragedies and comedies performed on the stage featured up to 50 masked chorus members who expounded on the action for the benefit of the audience.
“The chorus rejoiced in the triumph of good; it wailed aloud its grief, and sympathized with the woe of the puppets of the gods,” according to essayist Lauchlan Maclean Watt.
That’s an apt and flattering description of our posters, when they are on their game.
Often they are predictable and contribute little, if anything, to the dramas that play out in our communities.
Our newsroom staff has a standing joke that no matter what a news story is about, eventually the commentary posted below the story by readers will get around to three things: illegal immigration, spelling ability and someone else’s IQ.
Take the first four postings beneath a recent story about the capture of an 8-foot boa constrictor that was seen sliding down a residential street in San Carlos Park:
First poster: “Another day, another invasive exotic species in Florida.”
Second Poster: “They make the nicest pets. For idots (sic).”
Third Poster: “You spelled idiot wrong! Idiot.”
Fourth Poster: “Deport all illegals … hurry!”
Eventually, the comments got around to a more pertinent discussion about giant snakes in area subdivisions. When that happens, the chorus has performed well.
We will wrap this up with another passage from Mr. Watt’s essay on a Greek chorus:
“It was the ideal spectator, the soul being purged … flinging its song and its cry among the passions and the pain of others. It was the Vox Humana amid the storm and thunder of the gods.“
Our experiment continues.
I think the analogy is a bit forced, no?