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Nuts & Bolts, A discussion of how things work in the news business: Anonymous comment — keep or quit it?

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By Terri Likens, Editor

Recently, the Chattanooga Times Free-Press took steps to shut down anonymous comment on stories it posts online.

The newspaper is still allowing comment on opinion pieces — editorials, letters, editorial cartoons — posted online.

Managing editor Alison Gerber made this point:

“Too often, commenters post statements that simply are not accurate; sometimes they attack the person who is the subject of a story,” she said. “In too many cases, the online conversations descend into poisonous exchanges with comments that are cruel, rage-filled, racist or brimming with words you wouldn’t want your mother to hear you utter.”

For many of the reasons mentioned above, news outlets all over are struggling with the issue of anonymous postings and how to handling them.

The Roane County News has had only minor problems with online comments. Still, we worry about the attacks people seem to be willing to make anonymously — attacks we feel sure they would never make if their identities were clearly revealed.

We wonder if these anonymous attacks are eroding civility and honest debate, and replacing it with a polarized citizenry that can only spew venom from one side to the other.

The Chattanooga newspaper’s decision will be conroversial — not only in the community, but among other news outlets and newsgatherers.

While I’m not fully onboard with the the Chattanooga decision, I can appreciate the newspaper’s desire to restore civility in the debate arena.

It’s not that confrontation and disagreement is bad — it’s how we make our cases and handle our disagreement.
Stay tuned. I suspect we could be seeing more as other news outlets evaluate the harm and good of anonymous debate.
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Speaking of debate, I spent a good part of Saturday morning at Roane State Community College helping judge the Kingston Rotary Club’s inaugural speech contest.

It was fun working with fellow judges Gene Pickel and Bobby Davis, as well as moderator Debbie Alexander Davis (Bobby’s wife) as they worked with high school entrants and their families.

I was also impressed with the poise of the contestants. They showed confidence beyond their years, and one even announced future plans to run for Senate.

It was tough work, and we had to have a double tie-breaker between second and third place. That’s how good they were.

We hope to see this contest grow. Speaking in public is tough, even for some season professionals. With young people communicating in texts and tweets, well-reasoned debate is in danger of becoming a lost art.
We appreciate Kingston Rotary’s efforts in keeping this from happening.