Should comments be disabled on stories online?

Dear Mail Tribune readers,

I need your advice.

It’s something that’s been bugging me off and on for years. And, if you’ve ever read some of the comments posted on our stories online, it’s probably been bugging you, too.

We allow people to comment on our stories in the interest of generating a thoughtful dialogue about important issues affecting our community. We don’t expect readers to agree with the viewpoints of those we write about; far from it. We welcome healthy debate from all sides. We believe it’s an important role of a newspaper in a democratic society and helps open minds, narrow divides and find solutions.

As Jesse Jackson said, “Deliberation and debate is the way you stir the soul of our democracy.”

But far too often, that debate turns into hateful, degrading, personal attacks among posters in our online forums. Unlike traditional letters to the editor, where writers must not only identify themselves but provide phone numbers in case verification is necessary, posters commenting on stories online can hide behind anonymous accounts.

Posters who disagree with other posters have resorted to telling each other to either go kill themselves or do other unprintable self-harm, which does nothing to further deliberation, let alone stir the soul of our democracy. And those comments pale compared to some, especially those on stories about hot-button national topics such as whether Dreamers should be allowed to remain in the United States.

Instead of generating a broad base of opinions and ideas, the online forums seem to attract the same few people who constantly fight with each other. We're spending too much time "mucking out" the forums and banning offending users, who only create new anonymous email accounts to get back into the fray. Surely there are better battlegrounds for their feuds than our website.

The question I pose to our readers, then, is this: Should we turn off the ability to comment on our stories?

Readers could still write letters to the editor, which get posted online. I like that they must provide their true identities. If you won’t take responsibility for what comes out of your mouth — or pen, or keyboard — then you shouldn’t say it in the first place. Spewing hateful words behind anonymous icons is a special kind of cowardice that should not be rewarded.

What’s the downside to turning off the comments on our online stories? We want the Mail Tribune to be an inclusive source for all reasoned, thoughtful opinions. Because only by talking with each other, seeing things from a new perspective, can we hope to address the divisions that plague our communities and our nation.

What say you, readers?

— Reach Editor Cathy Noah at cnoah@mailtribune.com or by phone at 541-776-4464.

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