Policy and credibility are at the heart of the Saffold case. Shirley and Sydney Strickland Saffold claim that the Plain Dealer violated their user agreement by announcing their connection with ‘lawmiss’, the handle used by Sydney to post insults about relatives of the reporter writing on a death-penalty case decided by Judge Saffold. Susan Goldberg, an editor at the Plain Dealer, has responded by saying the paper is compelled to report the ‘lawmiss’ identity: “These are capital crimes and life-and-death issues for these defendants. I think not to disclose this would be a violation of our mission and damaging to our credibility as a news organization.” To what extent should readers be protected, and informed? The knowledge that certain comments have been posted by the daughter of someone closely connected to the case is relevant, and does impact credibility, but ‘lawmiss’ did not and was not required to willfully disclose the identity of the user.
Under the Huffington Post comment model, ‘lawmiss’s comment would be placed according to how well other readers trusted her. In this case, the previous 80 comments posted by ‘lawmiss’ could have pushed the comment in question to the bottom of the comment thread, if other readers identified ‘lawmiss’ as highly biased or not credible in other instances. This would be an attempt at compromise: As long as ‘lawmiss’ stays within the bounds of Huffington Post’s comment policy, the comment will be posted, but people will have to look a little harder to find it.
Finding the middle ground between credibility and anonymity is not easy, as credibility and knowledge of the source of information are necessarily connected. A potential pitfall of the Huffington Post is that only “middle of the road” comments would be among the most visible; it’s not hard to imagine users downgrading extremist viewpoints, or perspectives which are among the minority in a group of readers. For example, Huffington Post readers tend to be liberal, but what about people who disagree with its reporting or perceived agenda? Would those dissenting voices ultimately be drowned out from the dialogue? Similarly, should the opinions of commenters with personal connections to the story be considered less valuable and pushed to the edge?
It is my personal opinion that personal involvement should be disclosed, though ideally it is the user who does this and not the website. Maybe this is what needs to be added to comment policies on news sites–a policy that people close to a story reveal their involvement could stem misunderstandings by readers. Perhaps being forced to own up to comments would entice more intelligent arguments, since personal reputation is at stake. In a perfect world, all of us are willing to take responsibility for our actions, but just as this is not true in the physical world, it is unlikely to become a reality in the digital world.
Note: This entry was first published on the IFC blog, Make Media Matter.