Keeping online discourse civil is an ongoing battle

I’m often asked to name the most frequent concern I hear from readers, and I usually reply that there are several topics I hear about repeatedly.

Critics of Congress and the president — Obama or Bush — think The Star doesn’t hold their feet to the fire sufficiently. Many say (and I agree) that there’s an overall imbalance to the left in the variety of opinion pieces throughout the paper. And there’s always a steady stream of commentary on all sorts of small but important details, from holiday closings boxes to the TV grids in the FYI section.

But I’d have to single one objection out as the most prevalent: Readers often object to anonymous user comments on stories hosted at The Star’s website Going back through years of my internal newsroom reports, I find example after example: A discussion about the Chiefs had turned into a nasty war about crime in the inner city. A vindictive neighbor posted vile sexual insults about the wife of the subject of an innocuous feature story. One poster discovered the automatic profanity filter could be fooled by substituting the numeral “1” for the “i” in a racial slur.

In reaction, editors have recently decided to remove the ability to comment on certain stories altogether. And interestingly, I’m now hearing occasional objections from people who want to post their thoughts on stories where comments are disabled.

I have to admit I’m not sympathetic sometimes. I fail to see what possible redeeming value could come from opining on a violent domestic dispute between two private citizens or a single-person fatality car crash, for two recent examples.

There are plenty of places on the Internet to vent, but as one caller put it: “Why would you let someone post something that wouldn’t ever be allowed anywhere else on the site? Set some standards of decency.”

But I understand when reasonable people want to discuss touchy subjects. When reader Joe Donnelly asked why comments on one story about the NAACP’s recent resolution on the tea party movement were closed, Web editors showed me that the dialogue had become jaw-droppingly racist.

“I can only imagine what some of the comments might have been,” Donnelly replied. “Perhaps the days of civil discourse might be at end with the advent of invisible postings offered by the Internet.”

E-mailer Howard D. Haskin Jr. had a different view: “Kansas Citians, as well as others around the country and the world, should be able to see the dissenting commentaries if for no other reason than to expose the ‘hidden racism’ and let it be called out for what it is.”

My personal hunch is that anonymous Web comments will be with us forever, but rational users will see them more and more for what they are: the electronic equivalent of scrawls on the bathroom wall. Sometimes they make you mad, and sometimes they make you laugh — but they rarely really make you think.

This column was originally published in the Kansas City Star on July 31, 2010.

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