Increase intelligent conversation, remove Sound Off

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“I’m not shy about heated debate or passionate discourse, but when people get crazy or rude, that’s a buzzkill.” – Mos Def

COMMENTARY: Over the past 20 years or so, with the explosion of communication on the internet, a new and dangerous trend has appeared. Some news websites, including the Las Cruces Sun-News, have allowed people to comment on stories anonymously online… and in the print version people have the further option of calling in or emailing the Sound Off section to state a view without having to leave their name.

Bill McCamley

Courtesy photo

Bill McCamley

There are two major problems with this type of public discourse. First, when anonymous comment are encouraged, they are much more likely to include negative and angry language. According to a paper studying the issue and published by the University of Houston, 53 percent of comments allowed in an anonymous format were “vulgar, racist, profane, or hateful.”

In comparison, when commenters had to provide their name only 29 percent of comments fell into that category. The author, Dr. Santana, said, “In short, when anonymity was removed, civility prevailed.”

Another study by The Atlantic Monthly found that readers exposed to anonymous commenting were significantly more likely to view the attached article as negative than when the article was read without anonymous commentary.

Gregory Z. Smith

Courtesy photo

Gregory Z. Smith

Flip over to the Sound Off and you will see examples of this daily. No one can argue the vast majority of comments are negative, and sometimes blatantly rude or insulting.  As an example, look at one day of the Sound Off: Sunday May 17th.

Only two of the fourteen comments could be considered constructive (none were outright positive), while words like “apocalypse,” “asleep on the job,” “ludicrous,” and “goofy” were all used in comments comments critical of road construction crews, the minimum wage, El Paso electric, the pope, Bill Clinton, Doña Ana Community College, Las Cruces Public Schools, Las Cruces High School, the District Attorney’s Office, “liberal Democrats,” and Congress.

The other problem is that these negative, poisonous comments influence readers, promoting a more polarized view of a story than they would have formed without the comments. A study by the University of Wisconsin found that people who read newspaper and magazine reports on science “may be influenced as much by the comments at the end of the story as they are by the report itself.”

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The resultant effect undermines the work of reporters who try to engineer articles that are fair and informed, and the story’s sources who are quoted because of their involvement or expertise on the subject area. Because of this many respected, national publications have changed their policies.

The Huffington Post (left-leaning news), the National Journal (right-leaning news), USA Today, Popular ScienceESPN, and the Sporting News have all either banned anonymous posts or eliminated commenting altogether. In England, The Guardian newspaper admitted that after extensively covering the Russian invasion of Crimea, they were the target of an orchestrated campaign by Russian commenters who were attempting to influence readers views of the situation with a barrage of anonymous pro-Russian and anti-West comments.

The first exposure to our community

Here in Las Cruces there is another concern; Our only daily publication is the only paper in the state to publish anything like the Sound Off on a daily basis. So, for better or worse, it can be one of the first things seen by someone considering coming to Las Cruces. Hopefully we all agree that the first exposure anyone has to our community should be positive and honest.

We are from here and know that most area residents are kind, respectful people. Still, while we all have valid disagreements on issues that can get emotional, most conversations about them are conducted in a rational and respectful way.

Sound Off, however, promulgates a different impression of our home. If someone is thinking of moving here to locate a business, raise a family, or retire and toxic comments are the among first things they see, we shudder to think of the impact it may have on their decisions.

Therefore, we respectfully request that the Sun-News do what many other media outlets have done and discontinue the anonymous Sound Off column in the paper. Or, at the absolute minimum, we suggest that it is relocated to the opinion page so its effect on news stories will be diminished.

We strongly believe this will help foster a local environment that conveys intelligence, thoughtfulness and welcome… three things that we emphatically believe should be emphasized more, not less.

McCamley is the state representative for District 33. Smith is Las Cruces’ mayor pro tem.

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