We have long struggled with this dichotomy: We require readers who submit a letter to the editor to provide their full name, address and telephone number. Meanwhile, online, commenters only need an email address, which is frequently an alias.
The two-tiered approach produces two decidedly different results.
In print, we have carefully articulated viewpoints, signed by the author. Online, anonymous posts often devolve into a volley of name-calling.
These caustic comments would never be printed in The Miami Herald. We believe they shouldn’t appear on our website.
Beginning Monday, readers who want to comment on stories posted on MiamiHerald.com will be required to log in using a Facebook account. We believe that anyone who has something to say should be willing to put their name to it.
For years, we have wrestled with this dilemma. Tens of thousands of users comment on our online stories each year, a virtual town hall that at its best creates robust community conversations on important issues. Too often, however, the rational voices are scared off. It is one of the complaints we most often hear about our website.
We have used several different commenting systems over the years in an attempt to create a safe space for readers to engage. We also aggressively monitor the posts to weed out the spoilers. However, those intent on using that space like a blank wall for verbal graffiti continue to outpace our ability to clean up in their wake. They create another alias.
On Facebook, most people use their true identities and many of our readers already have existing accounts. Already, a quarter of our commenters use Facebook to log in. Readers who don’t have an account can create one for free.
For anyone who wants to send us an anonymous news tip, we have created a forum at the top of the comments section for that purpose.
We know the move to Facebook commenting is not a cure-all nor without controversy. Some users will find a way to create accounts using fake identities. We’ll watch for that as we continue to monitor for posts that deviate from the rules of civil engagement.
With these changes, we are likely to have fewer comments on our stories. We hope the trade-off will be a sharp improvement in the quality of the exchanges, a result reported by other news organizations that have made the switch. Last fall, as an exploratory step, we moved to Facebook commenting on Miami.com, our entertainment website. The results, and the feedback, have been positive.
The cloak of anonymity stifles respectful debate. We believe this change will encourage conversation — but in a safer, civilized space.