"The Sunday Edition with Michael Enright" recorded a panel discussion this afternoon on the value of anonymity on news websites. The program will air this Sunday.
As one of the participants along with Margaret Sullivan, editor-in-chief of the Buffalo News and Esther Enkin, Executive Editor, CBC News, we mostly agreed that there are dangers in letting comments appear in an unmediated form.
We also agreed that the Internet has changed the dynamic between media and the public forever and the challenge is for news organizations to try to get ahead of the public in order to meet them where they are. At the same time, the uber-democratic nature of the web means that the traditional role of journalistic gatekeeping is virtually gone.
Enright quoted David Remnick from the New Yorker as saying that his role is to put out the best product possible without regard to what the reader may want. This is fine if you are the editor of the New Yorker, but for we lesser mortals, attention to the audience must be paid.
While Esther, Margaret and Michael expressed concerns about the rise in rudeness, vulgarity and slander in the comments, I think that if media organizations insist on sanitizing the web, we also run the risk of dissuading citizens to contribute to journalism in general and whistleblowing, in particular. Some rudeness (up to incitement to violence) may be the price to pay for a deeper knowledge and better journalism in the long run, that the audience can provide and that too often, journalists cannot.
Esther affirmed that at CBC at least, the comments are sifted to see if there are future story possibilities. Other media organizations with fewer resources are likely to milk the comments section of their websites to convey the illusion of welcoming participation with the audience. Still others will use the comments to determine future editorial direction. In effect, a contracting out of the assignment process. Welcome to the "digital windsock" indeed.
As news organizations strip out their editorial capacity, the risk of overlooking and ignoring the frequent smarts of the public and their urgent willingness to participate in journalism continues to grow. But if that continues, the increased alienation of the public from the media that claims to serve the audience as citizens, will only grow larger.