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A comment on comments

April 19, 2011

In creating a new, more technologically advanced website, one of the assets The River Reporter was most interested in developing was the comments function, which allows for an ongoing conversation among our readers, and between us and our readers. Such a conversation promotes several goals that are part of our mission as a newspaper and an online presence: to create and strengthen community, and to provide a venue for discussions that lead to constructive solutions of shared problems.

We also recognized, however, that this asset comes with some formidable challenges—including, chiefly, the obligation to moderate the conversation in a way that promotes the abovementioned goals. And as anybody who has ever participated in an online forum knows, the conversation all too easily degenerates into a mud-wrestling match that destroys, divides and manufactures problems rather than bringing people together to build something.

In order to prevent this kind of result, it will sometimes be necessary to delete individual comments or even ban certain users. This week, we experienced our first test in this regard with a post by a user named TheHick that responded to Jane Prettyman’s My View, “Just One Pad,” and for which we received feedback that the comment was objectionable.

After careful thought and discussion, we have decided to leave this comment up. But we thought that an account of the reasoning we used in making this decision would be helpful to others in understanding, in the future, what kinds of comments will and will not be tolerated here, and why.

It is incumbent upon us to be fair and evenhanded with regard to our moderation, and that means developing a set of objective principles according to which comments should be deleted that can be applied across the board, regardless of whether we may agree or disagree with the authors. The set of such principles that we are working with at present are:

• No ad hominem attacks, which means, attack the authors’ arguments, not the morals, manners, character or other attributes of the authors themselves.
• In keeping with the above, no use of pejoratives, including no racist, sexist or otherwise bigoted language.
• No statements we know to be contrary to fact.

Here is the comment in question, and below it our reasoning:

Looking towards the future.

I believe that TRR should require people who wish to comment, to register under their real names. I believe TRR should also monitor the comments firmly.

My desire would be for the electronic venue to be similar to letters to the editor. TRR prints a lot of solid, intelligent, letters in its print edition, and I support the print edition by purchasing it retail.

If TRR required proper names, and monitored the comments, it would be providing an opportunity to submit such thoughtful comments electronically, and in a timely fashion, after the article or editorial.

It would be providing a large forum for this type of submission, as opposed to yet another nasty little blog.

it is nice move go for it and

it is nice move go for it and keep the good work up.
MMA Forum

Wrong again.

Even major news sources allow anonymous commenting. It would well serve Mr. Barth's purpose to eliminate all of those that do not choose to use their actual name for these comments. TheHick has already presented some reasons for not doing it. Mr. Barth also gave a few reasons when he described his trials and tribulations. All the RR need do is keep the comments civil and on topic. Ideas do not need names to have merit. Egos do.

TheHickTheNatural and the anonymous lessors

I was the only consistent poster of comments, writing under a real name, at the Wayne Independent, from approximately July of 2008 until I mostly stopped, perhaps seven months ago.

My hope was that by posting under my proper name, and by posting information and links to articles on gas extraction from around the country, the Wayne Independent would upgrade, and broaden its coverage of the issue, instead of simply reporting on the gas issue as a potential economic gain, and a fait accompli. The coverage seemed to me to be all positive spin, and I wanted to make sure that local residents had easier access to information, that they were not getting from local sources. At that time, the other Wayne County paper was The Weekly Almanac, and the main reporter covering the gas extraction issue for that paper, was Peter Wynne, who has since been serving as the spokesperson for NWPOA. You can imagine the level of reporting that he provided, given his current position.

Another goal of mine was to treat the internet venue of the W.I. as a kind of "electronic letter to the editor", instead of the vitriolic blog it so often reflected.

I think the Wayne Independent has since broadened its coverage, as it had writers such as Steve McConnell, Peter Becker, and Kevin Zwick, making occasionally strong efforts. The W.I. also now includes stories covered by the Associated Press, and they detail most aspects of the gas issue.

Once NWPOA signed their lease agreements with Hess and Newfield, around October of 2009, however, TheNatural, TheHick and other gas extraction lessors began to post anonymously. They immediately turned the threads into a personal attack, name calling venue. They constructed fictional, personal, motives for my actions, and attacked my imagined lifestyle that they made up. "Hypocrisy" for driving a car, and heating a home, while speaking out against shale gas extraction, was a constant refrain. They used words such as carpetbagger, liar, flatlander, outsiders, dork, obstructionist, as well as accusing me of profiting monetarily through my opposition. I quickly got into a street fight, much to my diminishment as a human being.

In retrospect, it is hard to imagine that I was naive enough to believe I could compete in such a structure: one man who spoke in full public view, against a group of the anonymous, who were dedicated to driving the discussion down to the lowest level possible. As one example, after the American Rivers press conference last year, TheHick and TheNatural bragged in their posts how they had stalked me, standing right at my back as I spoke with friends. I responded to their posts by referring to them as anonymous, cowardly, worms.

That is not a healthy interchange.

Eventually, I had to acknowledge that a person writing under a real name could not compete with the potential visciousness and small mindedness of anonymous people. Anonymity gives certain people cover to act as a mob. It distances some from their words, and actions. It makes it easier to act irresponsibly.

I tried to get the editorial board of the Wayne Independent to require comments to be made under a persons real name, but they refused. Eventually, I gave up.

Now it seems, TRR is faced with a similar choice. The editors can either create a blog for the mostly anonymous, cowardly, inciteful person trying to "rile up" the "obstructionists", or TRR can attempt to create a forum for an intelligent, earnest interchange of thoughts and feelings about the issues that impact our beloved area.

TRR might be able to accomplish the latter, by requiring people to post under their real names. I hope TRR's editorial board takes this action.

Trial De Nova

What's in a name? A rose by any other name would smell as sweet. Anonymity is a must for posters in this modern age as the rhetoric you write is often taken out of context or tied to you for life. Anonymity helps a person speak their true mind and heart without fear of retribution by some radical wing-nut under orders from the Great Spirit. It is also practical for a person who does business in the area to maintain a broad cusomer base without alienating a segment of that base. Just because I abhor your opinion doesn't mean I won't take your money. Mr. Barth in the past has used people identities to smear their names with tidbits he could find online such as prescription drug use or marital circumstances. He has also been fond in the past of ridiculing people's education levels for poor grammar or spelling. Luckily I am immune to cyber bullying. I suspect Mr Barth uses his real name to satisfy his ego.

I would like to issue a challenge to Mr Barth and TheNatural and all posters that we strictly debate the issue and refrain from any and all ungentlemen like conduct in this forum. We shall see who hurls the first stone.

Excellent suggestion

TheNatural does have a quirk of speaking in the third person, ala Bob Dole, but other than that, will strive to use charm. wit, logic, and irony to present an argument for the extraction of natural gas. Mr. Barth can rest easy in that regard, but be prepared for responses and rebuttals. TheHick has the gift of clear thinking and the ability to state those thoughts succintly, yet eloquently. TheNatural will attempt to follow suit, however poorly.

A comment on a comment on a comment

I commend the River Reporter on daring to open a comment section in their publication. It is a brave thing to do with the polarizing controversy surrounding gas drilling. I wonder if they were ready to accept the possibility of opinions that vary from theirs. Let's face it, this publication is opposed to drilling and is therefore a haven for like minded people. It is not surprising that an opposing view point was ill received. It is not my intention to be "perjorative". In the instance of Ms. Prettyman in regards to living in Honesdale, she is relatively new resident of town. It is fascinating to me how a person can breeze into a new setting and instantly assess all the inadequacies of that setting's culture which may include putting in a few years as an upstanding citizen before stirring up the muck. While I am absolutely certain Ms. Prettyman has only the best interests of Honesdalians at heart, it is interesting to note that she has never once mentioned compensation for those who will be made to bear the costs of her "improvements". It never comes up. Are landowners in this area an aristocracy that can just absorb this cost? Or is it possible that Ms. Prettyman doesn't want her quaint new life as a country mouse interrupted by progress and certainly doesn't want to entertain the thought of footing the bill for this convenience? What does New York City pay upstate New Yorkers for the priveledge of their excellent unfiltered water? We know what natural gas is worth because it has a derived market price. What is water worth and when do they intend to start paying for it? This is the real divide between the two sides.

If the River Reporter wants to be taken seriously as a "news" publication and not an anti drilling "propaganda" publication, they are going to have to start investigating some of the ridiculous claims made on either side of the issue instead of just regurgitating them. For instance Josh Fox makes many statements that are clearly false such as being a Wayne County native. The River Reporter doesn't seem to worry about "perjorative" in these instances.

The comment boards on The Wayne Independent have become full of slurs, name calling and rumor. The "antis" including James Barth are some of the worst offenders. While this may be unattractive, it certainly gets hits. It is my intention to give as good as I get. If at any time the River Reporter doesn't aprove of the way I conduct myself other than to disagree with my opinions, I shall humbly bow out.

Comments and truth

If this paper starts down the road of determining what comments are truthful and which ones are not, it will open up a can of worms. You will eventually quell any disagreement with your editorial staff, as they will always believe they are writing the truth. To disagree, or to write something that is contrary to what they believe, will result in an eliminated post. Eventually, the poster will be banned. In time, there will only be commenters that agree with this paper's position. This paper is well known to oppose natural gas drilling and that is the single hot topic in this area. Once the paper rids itself of opposing viewpoints, it will no longer have any credibility. The proper path for a liberal organization is to encourage all the dissent it can get and let the readers decide. The readers of this paper are mostly against drilling, so why not let us pro-drillers simply hang ourselves, rather than playing censor with the comments, and judge of the truth?