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Wednesday, Sep. 18, 2013

Public editor

A new approach to online comments

The Kansas City Star

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Frequently asked questions: Facebook commenting

Sometimes it’s important to be specific about language, even though most readers will find it offensive. So beware before you read further.

A wire story ran last week on KansasCity.com concerning two teens in a western state charged with a brutal murder.

Here I quote verbatim some of what was posted in the user comments section in the first few minutes after the story went up:

“I volunteer to through gasoline on these two and set them on fire.”

“These lil Trayvon’s are bound to be innocent angels.”

And as bad as these examples are, they are far from the worst on display before comments were shut down on the story.

Now, does it surprise you to hear that the No. 1 complaint I’ve heard through the years about Kansas City.com is the behavior of anonymous commenters?

In fact, no other single reader concern about the website even comes close. I can’t begin to put a number to how many people I’ve spoken to about this very real problem, or how many would-be commenters have sworn off posting because of the nastiness.

It was also no secret that only a tiny fraction of readers even made comments. Frequent visitors couldn’t help but notice that the vast majority of the traffic on most stories came from the same handful of screen names utterly dominating the discussion, posting scores if not hundreds of remarks all day, every day.

Today, anonymous comments are no more. KansasCity.com has switched to a new system that uses Facebook accounts.

Facebook logins have decreased the nastiness on other sites, though it isn’t a panacea. Some committed abusers wear their spite as a badge of pride, and there’s certainly nothing The Star or anyone else can do about that.

While it’s possible to create a fake profile on Facebook, these are usually fairly easy to spot, and the social networking site proactively tries to rid itself of them, too. Its stewards have a vested interest in keeping trolls and spambots out.

I have heard from readers who don’t want to use Facebook because of red flags that privacy experts have raised over its handling of users’ personal information. I understand and share some of those concerns.

But it’s clear The Star needed to respond to the overwhelming majority of decent, reasonable readers who have every right to expect KansasCity.com to remain a place for rational discourse.

Some commenters can be strident. Some occasionally behave like jerks. And that’s OK. I don’t necessarily mind passion, and I know that, well, jerks can be right.

But there’s a line between strident and threatening, passionate and repugnant.

I see no rationalization for the comments to host content that editors wouldn’t publish elsewhere on the site or in print. The Star values open debate, but that doesn’t mean anything goes.

I know readers will appreciate the extra layer of accountability. It’s a step long overdue.

To reach Derek Donovan, call 816-234-4487 weekday mornings or send email to publiceditor@kcstar.com. Follow him at Twitter.com/KCStarPublic.

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