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Pseudonyms for letters to the editor? Absolutely not!

By Scott Tibbs, October 2, 2014

For much of the internet, online comments are a virtual sewer. This is because when people can comment anonymously, they will say things they would never dare say if their real name and reputation were attached to their comments. We see this in action at the local newspaper, the Herald-Times.

Letters to the editor, which require a real name to be attached to the article, are generally much more civil than anonymous comments for stories - and this is despite the fact that the comments are moderated. The use of real names is important to the civility of discourse. The quality of comments and the civility of discussion on HeraldTimesOnline would be greatly improved if the fake names were abolished.

Losing the "three strikes" rule that HeraldTimesOnline implemented in 2012 by adopting the vastly inferior TownNews.com template in 2013 has hurt civil discourse badly. The "three strikes" rule was incredibly valuable in keeping the trolls contained, because they knew they would be gagged for two weeks if they refused to control themselves and had three comments removed in fourteen days. The only stick the H-T has to discourage trolls now is banning, and that is done so rarely (even for the most egregious trolls) it has no real value in maintaining order.

Last week, a letter to the editor was published encouraging the Herald-Times to allow publication of anonymous letters to the editor. Allowing fake names for LTTE would be a huge step backward for civil and rational community dialogue, pushing the LTTE section towards the often nasty (and always rowdy) story comments.

If you want your opinion published in the newspaper, you should be willing to take responsibility for your words by attaching your real name to it. Allowing people to sign LTTE with fake names would not even address the problem that the author presents: His first and last name is identical to another person who has letters published on a regular basis, including one that was published three weeks earlier and within the same calendar month. If the other person continues to write letters to the editor, there will still be the opportunity for people to confuse the author of the September 24 letter with the author of the September 3 letter.

Name confusion is a legitimate point. Even in a small city like Bloomington (with about 81,000 people) there will be a number of people with the same name. If you have one of those old-fashioned telephone books lying around, take a look under the name "Smith" and see how many people share the same first and last name.

Perhaps the Herald-Times could do a better job differentiating between people with similar names, but the reality is that most people are not going to know the unique identifier attached to people who share a name. Most people do not follow LTTE closely enough to make that distinction.

The suggestion of having each writer be assigned a pseudonym, though, would be a radical and unprecedented departure from the way letters to the editor are handled by the newspaper industry.

Like it or not, sometimes community debate with real names is messy, but the benefits far outweigh the drawbacks.