This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2015, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
Nothing spurs more debate and disagreement in our newsroom than the value of anonymous online comments on stories at sltrib.com.
The idea behind anonymous commenting a feature on our website for about 10 years is to offer a forum where readers can weigh in on the issues of the day, offer perspective or simply vent.
There are times when the comment stream adds a meaningful, valuable layer to the reporting, and has led to more stories on issues and news events.
Too often, we concede, the value is dubious, as commenters recite old biases and engage in predictable sniping. At best, off-topic comments add an amusing twist. At worst, they are bigoted personal attacks. That second class of comment can be flagged by readers and taken down by our online staff for violating our policies. We stipulate that threats are out, as are personal attacks. No obscenities or hate speech. Stay on topic.
The reason for anonymity? So people can speak their minds without fear of retaliation. But too often it becomes a license for incivility.
Nevertheless, we here at The Salt Lake Tribune are solely responsible for the forum. We created it. It is ours. We allow it to continue, acknowledging its imperfections and problems.
And so we found ourselves in a different sort of dilemma last week: Debating whether to reveal to "out" the identity of a commenter, the spokesman for Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker, who, under a pseudonym, was taking potshots at the mayor's opponents in the primary election.
We made this discovery innocently. A member of our online team reviewed one of his reader-flagged comments. When that happens, the commenter's email address, used to register with our system, appears. In this case, the address was the commenter's name, and our staffer recognized it as one and the same with the spokesman.
For the record, the comment's criticism was directed at the quality of Tribune reporting and was allowed to stand. That, I would add, is a true value of commenting in that it lets readers sound off on us.
The online staffer, following his journalistic curiosity, then searched for other comments by the spokesman and for the user's Internet Protocol, or IP, address. That's when he found the bombs hurled at Becker's opponents, sent from a Salt Lake City government address.
And our newsroom debate began. We make no guarantees of anonymity to commenters. Our policy clearly states that we might be in touch with commenters about the things they post online. We make contact when a poster too often violates our policies, for example, or when we think that person might have something to offer to our reporting. We have complied with subpoenas from law enforcement when a commenter has threatened violence against someone.
Some may assume, however, that there's an implied protection of commenters' identities in that we allow anonymity in the first place.
So, we had to weigh that assumption of implied protection against the possibility that the spokesman a public figure who often is the voice of the city had engaged in unethical, perhaps illegal, campaigning.
His explanation is that, while he made his comments from his desk in City Hall, he was on breaks, his own time, and that he was simply exercising his First Amendment rights as a citizen. Becker has placed him on administrative leave as his staff sorts it out.
As to our decision to publish: After a few days of discussion, ruminating, reviewing election laws and consulting election officials and a journalism ethicist, we came to this conclusion: Readers, especially those who vote in Salt Lake City, needed to know about this.
We realized this would be a bad call in the eyes of many commenters and other readers. Indeed, posts on the initial story, and on a sidebar story explaining our decision, bear that out.
I'm comfortable with where we ended, but more reflection and discussion are needed, including another review of our commenting policies perhaps of the value of comments altogether.
You are free to weigh in by commenting on this column. But keep it to the point and be civil.
Terry Orme is The Tribune's editor and publisher. Reach him at email@example.com.