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Community discussion on the roles of the media beg certain questions

Thursday, July 10, 2008 | 5:20 p.m. CDT; updated 4:17 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Dear reader,

Monday evening, some mid-Missourians will once again gather at the Columbia Public Library to discuss what’s wrong (and what’s right) about the news media and the roles of news in our public and private lives.

You’re welcome to join them. We’ll start at 6 (free food!) and end around 8:30.

As with last month’s “Watching the Watchdogs” event, the conversation will go wherever it goes; I’ll be there to listen, not lead.

If I were to ask a question, though, it might be one offered up in an e-mail this week from colleague Jeremy Littau: Is a newspaper a place to dispense information or create a community?

It’s a big question that began with a simple complaint.

A reader complained that ColumbiaMissourian.com requires a person’s real name, not user name, be published when posting a comment to the site. “I personally will probably never again come back here because I think that it is not a good policy to post people’s names with their comments,” the e-mail said.

Her note prompted a robust debate around the Missourian and among some of the journalism school’s awfully bright doctoral students.

Anonymity is the trend of the day. Few Web sites require actual identities be revealed. It’s clear that you can’t get more people jumping into the conversation when user names are the only barrier to jumping into the fray.

The movement, enabled by the instant interactivity of the Web, would suggest my long-held notion is, well, quaint. I have opined that newspapers were places for public opinions and public ideas — a town square in which you can’t hide behind the hedges and shout. Names allow for accountability.

Others have essentially told me to get over it. Democracy is larger than a name on a comment post. The opinion can take precedence over the opinion giver. “It’s high time we — and especially practicing journalists — face the fact that our model of good citizenship is dated,” wrote Hans Ibold.

The discussion continues. As you can see, the question of posting to a newspaper has much more to do with how we view ourselves in the community than with any press ethos.

As citizens, we’re all experts.

Tom


What do you think? Is a newspaper a place to dispense information or create a community? Should newspaper Web sites, including the Missourian, allow readers to post user names and not real names? Weigh in with a comment below, or discuss it at MyMissourian.com.


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