Since the advent of the Internet Age, I have admittedly used online boards to criticize policy decisions, lament instances of social injustice, and argue why my favourite team of hockey millionaires is more adept than yours.
I contributed all of these things as a private citizen in a public forum with other consenting parties. Most importantly — at least to me — I justified my rants and bad takes by posting them under my own name and next to my own photo. OK, sometimes my avatar is a photo of my dog but you get the idea.
Comment boards have become a hot-button issue for media companies. It is the interaction we crave from our readers/viewers/listeners. We want you to be part of the team, to have a discussion, to contribute to our product that we work so hard at and are so proud of. We want to hear (respectfully) where we have gone wrong, how we can improve, and which direction we should take a series of stories next.
We desire that feedback but at what cost? It's the modern version of coffee house discussion. Especially, in the virtual setting the pandemic has thrust much of our readership into. Gone are the days when a letter to the editor had to be physically dropped off or dropped in the mailbox. So much of today's world is borne of instant gratification. That comment left under an article can be misconstrued — attempts at sarcasm can be missed.
As more and more outlets either discontinue comment boards under articles altogether — or move to a hybrid digital letter to the editor system involving social media channels — the goal in all of this is "accountability." I, for one, encourage it. If I owned a media company, I would demand it.
As my former colleague Dave Dale and I discussed in our Reporters Shop Talk podcast here, the evolution of the comment board has entered some dark places by anonymous voices but there is hope.
It's not even a matter of having the courage of one's convictions. Shouldn't we always be held accountable for our words? It's fine to have opposing thoughts and viewpoints. Cut out the mystery surrounding where those words originate. Anonymity provides a safe haven for many things — including, but not limited to — purposefully inflammatory comments, trolling, and personal attacks.
A politician's stance on an issue is fair game for the boards. Their weight or family life is not.
As for comment boards, I fear it may be too late to put the genie back in the bottle. I've seen and taken part in some excellent discussions with people with varying views, from all over the world, on a host of topics. Unfortunately, the boards (and some might say the internet itself) have descended into a wallowing pit of hate by a minority of users. As a variation on the old saying goes, it starts with one and only takes one to ruin it for everybody else.