How can the Star reconcile the stew of conflicting views about online commenting?

By Kathy English, public editor of Toronto Star

In the six years since the Toronto Star began publishing reader’s anonymous comments online, I’ve heard constant complaints about our commenting policies and practices.

I don’t think any news organization has figured out an optimal online commenting system that engages readers and encourages civil debate about issues that matter. This is a fraught issue the world over.

Judging by the never-ending feedback I receive, it seems no one is happy with online commenting at the Star despite this news organization’s best efforts to encourage “respectful and civil discussion.”

On one hand are those readers who lament the incivility and often outright nastiness of online comments and question why the Star allows anonymous commenting. They believe comments should have real names attached to them, as has long been demanded in the paper’s Letters to the Editor page.

On the other hand are those who relish the opportunity to engage with the news and want wide-open commenting on all stories. In that camp are those who are incensed when their comments are disallowed because they fall outside the bounds of the Star’s legal obligations or our carefully considered Community Code of Conduct.

To understand what the Star faces in reconciling readers’ concerns about online comments, consider these two diametrically opposed emails sent to me in recent weeks.

Here’s one: “It seems every time I scroll past the article, I see inflammatory and unhelpful comments left by the same names again and again — ‘coolstorybro’ and ‘spiritofwica,’ to name a couple. We pay for an online subscription and we’re tired of seeing these annoying comments, especially since we pay money to read articles written by journalists, not wing-nut comments.”

And another: “I notice that the number of articles where people can comment seems to be declining. As much as I’d like to say I read the Star online for its amazing content, the truth is one of the great benefits of reading online is seeing what others are thinking. From my perspective at least, omitting the comment section reduces the overall attraction of your offering.”

So how can the Star ever reconcile this stew of conflicting opinions about online commenting?

I don’t have the answers, but I can tell you that the newsroom is considering the future of online comments. Editor Michael Cooke has called a meeting for next week to discuss commenting and all of these issues are open for discussion.

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