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DEAR READER: When you comment on a newspaper site, it's public

Friday, February 26, 2010 | 5:27 p.m. CST; updated 10:20 a.m. CDT, Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Dear Reader,

There’s no such a thing as a private citizen.

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It’s the linguistic equivalent of a convenient pothole or a newspaper that doesn't publish.

They simply don’t exist.

To be a citizen is to act in a public way.

That’s why comments on ColumbiaMissourian.com require names. Commenting should be an act of citizenship, even if sometimes it's closer to graffiti.

I have a private life. I am a public citizen.

Earlier this week, the Columbia Daily Tribune reported that Fourth Ward council candidate Tracy Greever-Rice asked a Trib information technology employee to delete her account before announcing her candidacy. He did.

The decision should have been an editorial one, according to the Tribune’s managing editor, Jim Robertson. The newsroom decision would have been to keep the comments online.

I would have made the same call regardless of who was doing the asking.

I’ve written columns years ago that make me cringe now. I’ve been quoted in many publications. I’ve Tweeted (rarely) and I’ve written on my Facebook page (even more rarely).

My presumption in each case has been that it’s public, and will be forever.

A central purpose of newspapers has been archival. A historian can go to the archives and find a snapshot of Columbia from a day or decade ago.

So can anyone else, often right through the laptop.

Has the role changed as we’ve entered the digital age?

In recent years, I have been asked to remove articles, names and comments from ColumbiaMissourian.com or VoxMagazine.com.

This week a woman asked me to remove a photo.

A while back, an alpaca farmer who moved away from Columbia wanted me to take down a lovely feature on him because of a growing anti-alpaca movement in the country of his new homestead. (Who knew?)

I didn’t want to hurt either person.

But I didn't delete the photo or story.

In one sense, they couldn’t have been removed anyway.

As Rob Weir, the Missourian’s director of digital development, notes, “Google, Bing and other search engines constantly crawl the Internet and capture/cache data from Web sites.”

Clicking "post" online is like hitting the button to start the print presses. Once it's done, there's no going back.

It's always out there somewhere.

There is also a larger principle at stake.

A digital newspaper should be, like its print cousin, the first and roughest cut at history. Collectively, all those little things – a photo here, a classifieds listing there – create a picture of a moment in time.

Comments are part of that picture, and have been since the first letter to the editor was published.

More important to me is maintaining the sense of public purpose and public action in a newspaper.

As individuals, we can guard our private lives as vigorously as we choose. As citizens, we can act publicly.

And a newspaper publishes.


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Comments

Tim Dance February 26, 2010 | 6:33 p.m.

it's not exactly Watergate either, this is getting way too much press. I think Greever-Rice has a strong public record on the P&Z, Visioning commission, and the Board of Adjustment that is open and transparent. Equating that with the "graffiti" and ridiculous comments on the Trib is erroneous and I have no doubt there will be folks that will try to make this a "government" trasparency issue. Comments made at newspaper sites are not "public" in the sense of government actions. Is it a gray area?, yeah, but since the Trib had the right to decline or allow deletion, it is a private forum. It is far from the egregious backroom dealings some members of the Chamber and the other newspaper have enjoyed behind closed doors.

(Report Comment)
Paul Allaire April 3, 2010 | 6:18 p.m.

None of what you say is true at all!!! The tribune has eliminated my comments every time it became convenient.

(Report Comment)
Carl Kabler April 3, 2010 | 9:35 p.m.

Tom, does the Columbia Missourian delete comments just because some editor doesn't agree with them personally or politically, I was told by someone there that this wasn't done. But I was just perusing the comments section and I could have sworn there were comments posted under the story about the taser use public meeting, and now I don't see those.

Also I can't find now the story about the security cameras, if it's still here it sure isn't easy to locate, it was on the main page and now I don't find it on any of the pages, after much time looking. I thought the comments there were thoughtful and worthwhile and saw nothing that would warrent removal at least as according to the stated posting policies. So what gives? Am I simply imagining things and not looking hard enough or have we seen some deletions here just recently?

(Report Comment)
Ricky Gurley August 29, 2011 | 5:16 a.m.

So Tom,

You'd delete comments made a by one poster that might offend another poster, but you would not delete posts made in a heated on-line discussion that might "hurt" a poster's chance to get a job, become an elected official, or enjoy some other kind of opportunity? Let me just see if I got this right? You value the "widdle feely weelys" of someone that might be offended by a post on your forum more-so than you value giving someone a second chance or even a third chance, and wiping their slate clean so they might be able to improve their life? I mean, you'll moderate a heated discussion and delete "name calling posts"; but you want to insure that what someone posted a year ago or two years ago can come back to "bite them in the butt"? That about right?

I should be happy that you feel this way... About 4 years ago I worked a case where I had to try to figure out how to ruin the credibility of a witness. I needed to find out whether or not this witness had anything in her past that might indicate that she had a propensity to commit violent acts. She had a charge that was "SIS'ed", so I could not get any information on the charge from the CPD. But... Thanks to your Digital Newspaper, I was able to find out that she had a very interesting charge that not only demonstrated that she had the propensity to commit violent acts, but violent acts against Police Officers. With a few questions, the attorney was able to get her to open the door on the stand to get these charges in, during her testimony. The attorney was able to "decimate" a witness that was claiming to be a victim of domestic violence in order to live rent free in my client's apartment because she had nowhere else to go. All thanks to your Digital Newspaper. Yep, thanks to your philosophy on "preserving history", an "SIS" is just really not an "SIS" these days. LOL.

So, as a P.I.; I should not be complaining.. But, if you are going to delete a comment because it may offend someone with a personal attack; then why shouldn't a person have the opportunity to request that the comments they made in anger or a heated discussion be deleted because they might prohibit opportunities of betterment to their life? Seems like taking down a comment or deleting an account so a person could get a job, or improve their life in some way, EVEN in cases of running for public office; might be a better reason than deleting a comment because someone's little feelings got hurt...

Ricky B. Gurley.

(Report Comment)
Ellis Smith August 29, 2011 | 5:41 a.m.

Regarding the "luciya helan" post, 8-29-ll (above), I believe I once knew someone named "Luciya." She was a coal miner's daughter with less than an eighth grade education (but with good sense) and had a lot of children. Her father died of black lung disease.

Ricky, does anything about the post in question look at all familiar? :)

(Report Comment)
Ricky Gurley August 29, 2011 | 6:04 a.m.

Not really. It could be SPAM. The bottom URL does not make much sense to me..

I think I know what you are asking.. And that is possible too; there just isn't any way to prove it... Same BS "feel good ignorance", though....

I did not respond to that post though, I responded to the article; however I would not have found the article without the post.

Ricky B. Gurley.

(Report Comment)
Tom Warhover August 29, 2011 | 9:43 a.m.

I see your point, Mr. Gurley, but to me it's a bit of apples and oranges. The reason we have rules on commenting -- no nudity, no profanity, no personal attacks -- is to promote civil discourse. The reason we report arrests is to provide information that's of a public nature.

Your example, in fact, may represent a good case of why we changed our policy about reporting the "police blotter," that daily, public record of all public arrests and incidents maintained by the police.

For many years, we maintained that we should publish the names of people arrested, regardless of the outcome after the arrest. The long tail of the Internet made us revisit the question many times. Eventually, we removed names of the arrested from the crime blotter.

We still name names in articles about arrests. The presumption is that if the incident rises to the level of article, then it's very likely we'll write about the judicial outcome. It's far from perfect; I'm sure we miss sometimes.

As to pulling alpaca features, I'll stand pat on that defense.

Tom

(Report Comment)
Ricky Gurley August 29, 2011 | 12:12 p.m.

Tom,

Perhaps the motives for deleting comments in the two scenarios I gave are different; but the acts are the same. It is still a matter of deleting or not deleting content whether it is because someone is afraid that what they said two years ago may reflect negatively on them now and prohibit them from taking advantage of some sort of oppotunity, or because you have some sensitive, "namby pamby, ignoramus" that does not understand that people are not always going to agree with what they have to say, and some may disagree with what they have to say harshly. It is still a matter of deleting content.

It just seems to me that deleting content so that someone can take advantage of some new opportunity; that they may not have otherwise be able to take advantage of because of because of something posted in a heated exchange two years ago is a better reason for deleting content than because some sensitive person hit the "Report Comment" button on the forum.

But......

Maybe if I want to manipulate your philosophy here a little, all I need to do is get two or three freinds to join the forum and hit the "Report Comment" button on my old posts that I no longer want made public, to get them deleted? That's a thought....

Ricky B. Gurley.

RMRI, Inc.
http://www.rmriinc.com
(573) 529-0808

(Report Comment)
mike mentor August 29, 2011 | 5:05 p.m.

I disagree with the idea that one must be identified by name in order for them to "act as a citizen" or to ensure "history is preserved". I think one of the most important things I do as a citizen is to vote. When I cast my ballot, the rest of my community has no idea who I voted for, nor should they. This leaves me free to vote however I want without worrying if it will hurt my career because my vote was at odds with my boss or the corporate culture where I work or if that vote will cost me customers that disagree with it if I am a business owner. The fact that my name is not attached to my vote when the results are given certainly does not diminish my vote nor change the outcome of the election. I have participated in citizenship in one of the most important public ways, but my name was kept private.
IMHO, this is the way it should be here. I should be able to express my views as a citizen or reader without worrying if it will cost me in my career or business. I would argue that the content of the comments and views that are shared is actually the important information that should be preserved in order to know how people thought or felt at the time and not whether the recorded comment or thought came from John Doe or John Buck.
Having stated my case, I realize I am at odds with two things that you have to come to terms with. One, as a journalist, from day one, you are tought to always have a name attached to any comment or thought that you are going to publish to maintain credibility. Do we want to hold the comment section up to this, old school journalistic standard since I doubt we will ever be in a situation where an editor has to contact a poster to verify a posters position? I think in this case I would argue that the times are a changin' my friend and this freedom of discourse without fear of retribution easily outways the need to attach a name to uphold traditional journalistic integrity. The second issue, which I leave up to debate, is your desire to keep the comment section a constructive exercise in comminity discourse and not a name calling graffiti wall full of nonsense. If information you have or your experience has provided you with enough information to reasonably conclude that the comment section would be unmanagable without having a name attached to the comments, then I guess I have to leave that up to you as the "expert". Just give me this as the reason...

(Report Comment)
Tom Warhover August 29, 2011 | 5:22 p.m.

Mike, I don't have citations at my fingertips, but I know that several newspapers in the past year have gone away from anonymous commenting for that very reason. The name-calling -- nasty, awful stuff that you wouldn't find on respectable graffiti in a bathroom stall -- got so out of hand that the newspapers had to either change the name policy or stop all commenting entirely.

Interesting point about citizenship. Indeed it takes many forms, including the sanctity of anonymity at the voting booth.

(Report Comment)
mike mentor August 29, 2011 | 11:14 p.m.

@tom
I wish things were different, but have to agree that there is a likely chance that the forum would degenerate if your policies were different. This or at least require too much attention to moderate. I guess there is a reason that the financial and sports forums i have perused in the past have become far less interesting.

(Report Comment)

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