Editorial: Will I put my name on this, and if not, why not?

UPDATE: With 36 comments as of 2/4/11
January 28, 2011
by Susie Pender, Editor, NewCastleNOW.org

In a perfect world, everyone would know all the facts all the time. Everyone with an opinion on a community issue would have the opportunity to speak at a Town Hall-type meeting. Somehow this Town Hall meeting would be moderated in a way that was fair to everyone.

No one would fear retaliation or ridicule for opinions honestly offered, constructive criticism or new, perhaps not completely formed, ideas. Everyone would leave the meeting with the issue resolved to everyone’s satisfaction.

And all our children would be above average, too. 

But we don’t live in Lake Woebegone. So how can we discuss community-wide issues that need serious input to resolve? We give it our best shot, in the messy, not-perfect way that democracy allows.

And at this moment in the 21st Century, giving it our best shot as a community must include conversation via the Internet.

Commentary – The Dream

I hate speaking in abstractions because readers get bored and nod off. So I’m going to use Chappaqua Crossing as my talking point. I think it’s fair to say that five years ago, no one in New Castle (except for the attorneys and professionals who specialize in real estate) knew what a DEIS was, never mind a FEIS.

Now those acronyms are part of the regular vocabulary of residents conversing at town hall, Susan Lawrence, Lange’s Deli and the A&P. For that, we have to thank in large part the individuals who have stepped forward to share their expertise with the general public on our comment pages: architects, attorneys, environmentalists, financial analysts, investment bankers, real estate professionals and residents with experiences in other communities that considered major real estate developments. Oh, and just plain smart people with good ideas.

Indeed, engaged citizens have jumped into the commentary asking good questions to which these knowledgeable folk have obligingly responded. 

We are lucky. In considering the pros and cons of Chappaqua Crossing, we have not been limited to the information presented in the developer’s glossy mailings nor the town board’s necessarily constrained reports.  We could be a community in the dark, but we’re not. Thank you to all those commentators who have educated us.

Commentary – The Reality

Most of these informative comments have been anonymous. And here are a few good reasons why.

• People want to keep their jobs. Some of the professionals sharing their expertise are providing information that very well may be contrary to the best interests of their employers. It is admirable that they want to help their community in this way, but understandable that they don’t want to do it at the risk of their livelihood.

• Residents have anonymously expressed their frustration and anxiety about Chappaqua Crossing, both pro and con. That information, that residents are frustrated and anxious, is valuable to both the town board and the developer for making historic decisions that will impact New Castle forever. Many of these voices would not be heard but for the opportunity to speak anonymously.

• Anonymity provides an opportunity to test the waters. You may think you are the only one with your opinion. You put it out there and, lo and behold, a community of like-believers forms around you.  Your good idea carries the day and benefits the whole community.

• The residents’ fear of retaliation is real. Which, I want to make clear, is different than proof that retaliation happens in our town or in our schools.  Town and school officials dismiss this as absurd. But it has been stated to me again and again as a primary reason residents choose to be anonymous.

Anonymity opens the door to otherwise quiet voices

A recent letter to the editor we ran about the 2011-12 school budget, “Citizen group urges school board to cut school taxes & stand up to unions,” garnered 115 comments. The comments raised many issues: teachers and residents expressed their frustrations, at Albany, at unions, at each other. Some residents praised the teachers; some teachers praised the residents. And one group, who is rarely heard from, students, joined the conversation.

I was particularly struck by one student’s voice that deserves to be heard, that I doubt we would have heard without the protection of anonymity.

I am sorry to see the bad example that continues to be set for us (the students) on this website.

Do you think it helps the budget process to disrespect our teachers?  Let me remind you that the teachers are the adults we spend the majority of each day with and I have no doubt that we see them more than we see our own parents.  Not everyone is a great teacher but at least they value hard work and excellence as much as we do.  My friends and I do not want to be in the middle of this argument between our parents and our teachers so would you PLEASE find a way to be more civil? . . .

When our reserves start to run low and the pieces begin to fall apart, it is almost always one of our teachers who reach out to us first.  After all, they see us everyday and they know when we’re ourselves and when we’re not.  One day I wasn’t feeling well (I was sad actually) and three different teachers pulled me aside during the day to ask how I was doing. In fact, my counselor is the one always reassuring me that the best I can do, is good enough.  When I need a lift, I know I can go to their door and find someone who cares about my well-being and not just my grades.  All I’m trying to say is that we spend so much time in school and we need adults around us who are healthy, thoughtful and most importantly care about us.  We are lucky to have this at Greeley and it’s embarrassing to us (the students) when we see this taken for granted by the ones who are supposed to care about us the most.

By High Schooler on 01/19/2011 at 8:02 pm

Commentary – The Underbelly

As this student pointed out, anonymity gives free rein to our baser instincts: The instinct to berate, to belittle, to ridicule, to retaliate, or to repeat and repeat and repeat an argument when someone disagrees in a responsive comment.

No question, these are abuses of anonymity. And I’m disheartened to report that they happen everyday on our website.

Readers have written asking us to control this behavior. Their suggestions fall into three categories:

1. Turn off the comment function;

2. Do not allow such comments, which would put us in the position of censors, always a slippery slope to encroachment on First Amendment rights; or

3. Require that each commentator sign his or her real name.

None of these suggestions will move us closer to civil discourse from a wide range of voices. Turning off the comment function would be a net loss for the community. How else, where else, can so many voices be heard?

We do act as gatekeeper, but we refuse to censor. After every article, the comment section begins: “We encourage civil, civic discourse. In other words, be pithy and polite. All comments will be reviewed before publication to assure that this standard is met.”

Some would argue that we have been too lax in our standard. It should surprise no one that as journalists, we err on the side of open communication and protection of First Amendment rights.

But I suggest you try this at home: Pick out an article, then pick a comment that you would have excluded under your standard of “civil civic discourse” and then ask yourself honestly: Are you excluding it because you disagree with it? Are you excluding it because you don’t like the tone? Are you excluding it because it attacks a public official or private individual who you like? Then send me your suggestions at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address), or write them in the comment section following this editorial.

Unintended consequences of requiring a name for every posting

Simply requiring everyone to sign their name is, frankly, not so simple. Just because someone signs a name, doesn’t mean it’s a real name. (We would need to hire substantial staff to confirm every posting.) And just because someone signs his or her name doesn’t mean you know the biases or secret agenda behind his or her comments.

I do agree that requiring a name would make those people still willing to comment under those circumstances more civil in their comments. But at what cost? There’s no question the breadth of the civic conversation would suffer. All those voices that can only speak anonymously, whatever their personal reason, would be silenced.

Make anonymity a responsible choice, not a default setting

I have two suggestions for making the commentary in NewCastleNOW more civil. To everyone who comments: Make anonymity an affirmative choice—for a reason that you can articulate to yourself—and not your default setting.

Ask yourself, before you hit “send:” Will I put my name on this, and if not, why not? You might discover that the simple honest answer is: Because I would be embarrassed to have anyone, but particularly my mother or my children, hear me sound like such a jerk.

For those of you who are disheartened or offended by the tone or content of an article, speak up about that in the comments. Let’s change the statistics. Right now, most controversial comments are anonymous and all rude ones are. If you want the balance to shift away from anonymous comments, start commenting.

I hope this engenders a civil, robust discussion on anonymity. Can the community regulate itself? Let’s see.
Related articles in today’s edition of NCNOW:

NEW: Letter to the Editor: The impact of anonymity in editorial comments in NewCastleNOW, January 28, 2011, by Hildy Sheinbaum

RERUN: Op-Ed: Where everybody knows your name, January 28, 2011 [Reprinted from June 2010], by Olga Seham

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