Why do newspapers have different standards online?

If you felt strongly enough about some issue to send a letter to a national newspaper you would be obliged to supply your name, address and a daytime telephone contact number. This allows them to verify your identity and, unless you specifically requested otherwise, your name would appear beneath your letter. The prospect of thousands of readers knowing that you are responsible for its content is likely to ensure that you word it carefully, maybe redrafting it a couple of times, checking the facts, the figures, the grammar and the spelling. If you, or the subject, are particularly sensitive, you might even ask a friend to cast an eye over it to make sure that it strikes just the right tone. Consequently, the standard of the letters published in our quality press is high, the subjects varied, the correspondents largely rational, informed, authoritative and articulate. The letters page acts like a readers’ forum, reflecting their mood and their opinions, both on the topics of the day and on the way they have been covered by the paper.

Now the same newspapers publish online they invite readers to comment on articles, these comments being published immediately beneath them. This is possible because there are no space issues online. This is not to say that space is infinite, rather that it is ‘finite but unbounded’ (to borrow from Stephen Hawking in another context). To comment, you must register, though you are not obliged to use your real name, so the vast majority of people posting comments do so under pseudonyms. Whereas the letters in the newspaper are carefully composed, then selected by an editor and only a tiny minority see the light of day, online comment is free and space abundant.

Many comments are deleted by online moderators, presumably due to being offensive, libellous or otherwise actionable. Many more are trite or vacuous, the majority almost totally devoid of the wit and wisdom of the letters page. Threads often descend into cynicism and abuse quite quickly and remain on view indefinitely, as far as I can tell. There have also been many instances where anyonymous posters misrepresent themselves as objective, when in fact they have an axe to grind: authors have reviewed their own work; lobbyists have pretended to be disinterested observers; hoteliers have eulogised their own establishments under the guise of satisfied customers, and so on. Although you might argue that comments are deliberately less formal than a written letter, the principle must still apply.

I know that newspaper publishers are struggling to find a business model that works for them, and that they are keen to drive as much ‘traffic’ as they can to their new digital editions, but I would much prefer them to maintain the same standards for feedback online as they do in the printed editions. Every published comment should be accompanied by the name and home town of its poster. If this results in only five quality comments because the other 45 never get posted, so be it. There is enough trash online already and we expect our newspapers to keep it off their websites. What grates even more is when the ‘highlights’ of the anonymous online postings are printed on the newspaper pages.

Does the fact that this article is unsigned invalidate my argument? Or is it only anonymity that prevents blogs from being vanity publishing?

PS: You might be wondering why I don’t put all this in a letter and send it to a newspaper. I did, but they didn’t publish it.

© 2011

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One Response to Why do newspapers have different standards online?

  1. Well, I have a fear that the present editor of The Times is doing what all Times eds seem to do at some stage, doing a Telegraph: saucy court/dispute stories on p3. When circulation fails to rise, the ed. then pitches the paper downmarket to Daily Mail level, eventually ending up more or less where they started. And with circ. still falling. Incidentally, I like this font. Georgia?

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