Online readers need a chance to comment, but not to abuse

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By Andrew Alexander
Ombudsman
Sunday, April 4, 2010

Anonymous online commenting has always been rowdy and raucous, especially when public figures are the targets.

"Excellent!" exulted a Post commenter when conservative columnist Robert Novak died in August. "Hope he suffered."

When Sen. Edward M. Kennedy died a week later, a commenter wrote: "They are going to have to bury him in a secret location to stop people from defecating on his grave."

And after The Post reported last month that the wife and daughter of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid had been badly injured when their car was hit by a tractor-trailer, a commenter applauded: "I would dearly LOVE to shake the hand of the driver of the other vehicle."

Those in public life come to expect despicable and hurtful comments. Most have developed thick hides.

But for average folks who are out of the public eye and agree to be featured in The Post, brutal online comments can be unexpected and devastating. Post reporters say increasing numbers are expressing regret they cooperated for stories that resulted in vicious anonymous attacks.

"I think it's a major issue at The Post," said reporter Ian Shapira. "We just totally throw them to the wolves" if comments aren't moderated.

Style section reporter Ellen McCarthy, who writes the Sunday "On Love" feature on couples who wed, said she spends an "inordinate amount of my time on weekends" monitoring comments. Many are so cruel they get deleted. For example, one implored a bride to take out a life insurance policy on her new husband, suggesting his obesity would soon kill him.

Several other reporters said they routinely monitor comments after their stories appear in hopes of deleting inappropriate ones before they're spotted by news sources. They can be so venomous that religion reporter William Wan sometimes warns those he has written about to avoid looking at them once the story appears.

In a few cases, those who helped with stories have said "never again." Michael J. Sutherland, who heads American Collections Enterprise in Alexandria, reluctantly agreed to cooperate for a February Post story on debt collectors. "I would never do another interview, knowing how negative the comments were," he said last week.

Readers regularly tell me The Post's online comment boards have become little more than cesspools of venom and twaddle. Many want an end to anonymous commenting, a step some Post staffers privately favor.

That's not the answer.


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