New Rules for Commenting on Watertown News Stories

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Starting Monday, June 26, Watertown News will have new guidelines for commenting on stories on the site, with preference given to people signing their names to comments.

Due to numerous complaints I have received from people in the community about people commenting anonymously or using a screen name, the rules for those who do not use their name will be different. I read comments before approving them to go on the site, but over the past year or so I feel some debates have gotten out of control.

While I understand people may not want to use their own name, I also think it is not fair to allow people to make statements – especially directed at other commenters or people in the story – under the anonymity of a screen name.

People will still be able to comment without their name, BUT, a person can only make one comment per story anonymously. You will not be able to respond to posts about to your comment from people using their name as their screen name or who sign their comment. Also, people will be able to comment about the story or issues in as story, but will not be able to make comments directed at someone else’s comments.

Essentially, if you really believe in what you are saying in your comment you need stand behind it by using your name.

To comment using your name you must have your real name, first and last names, either in the “name” section of the comment form or by signing at the end of the comment. You do not need to include your address or street.

There are also rules for those who use their name when commenting, including no personal attacks or slights, and no swearing or rude language.

Why make the change now? It is a slower part of the year and before we get into this year’s Town Election. Still, there have been few recent issues have inspired heated debate, some of which went over the line. It is my hope that the new rules will result in more thoughtful discussion and debate and less focus on who is making the comments. I did not want to require everyone to verify themselves because this sometimes discourages people from commenting. Some ways of doing so, such as requiring a Facebook account, limits who can participate because they are not on Facebook or other sites.

One more thing, if you are commenting and have a concern about your comment or people’s responses to your comment you can always contact me “off line” by email at rather than responding in the comment section.

Charlie Breitrose
Editor, Watertown News

Tips for Commenting

People have become divided across the nation and right here in Watertown, and I believe online commenting and social media has contributed greatly to this divide. People focus more on differences than on what unites us. Sometimes these can be due to misunderstandings and pitfalls that can be avoided.

Here are some of my tips:

Take a Minute

Before you hit Post Comment take a minute to think about it. Often people will comment immediately after reading the story or another comment and what you really want to say is not communicated clearly, or sometimes you may realize you didn’t want to make the comment. By might avoid getting into an argument and you can get your message across clearly.

Expand on Your Opinion

I remember getting notes from my teachers on tests or papers saying “Expand on this,” or “Explain.” I think this is good advice for commenting. Instead of “I don’t like this,” say “I don’t like this because …” Even a brief explanation can be helpful in getting your point across. Remember, people don’t know what you were thinking when you made the comment so what makes sense in your head when you made your comment will not come through unless you include that information.

Respond to the Comment, Not the Person

When you write a comment and use the person’s name, it will appear much to be much more personal, even targeted at the person. When someone reads “I disagree about this issue …” it is reads differently than if you say “Joe Public, I disagree with you …” or “I disagree with Joe Public on this issue …”

You Don’t Always Have to Respond

On that subject, if someone responds negatively to your comment, it is understandable you want to react. Sometimes you can explain why you made your first statement or add some information. However, if it is the third or fourth time you are going back and forth it is not likely you will convince the other person, and this is often when the debate gets into the weeds and gets into personal slights, assumptions are made about the person and other areas far away from the original comment. Sometimes leaving the argument is the best move, and you can take comfort that you took the high road.

Don’t Make Assumptions About Others

As mentioned above, I have seen multiple discussions end up with people making statements about another person, usually who they do not know personally, based on what is said on in the comments. That is such a small window. Don’t think that a person fits a larger stereotype just because of their opinions on one or a few subjects. And when you “attack” their values and make assumptions, the reverse also occurs and they will only see you as a stereotype. While we have a wide range of opinions in Watertown, I believe most people would get along if they actually met in person – and being such a small town you might just run into them.

Don’t Get Baited

I believe this is where many people get into unintended or unexpected heated debates. Fans of “South Park” may have seen the story arc on Internet Trolling. The show did a surprisingly good job at boiling down the issue. One of the points was sometimes you will state your opinion and others will egg you on until you react in a way that will make others upset and totally sidetrack your original point and may put people off from your entire opinion – no matter how insightful it is. This is where assumptions often come into play.

19 thoughts on “New Rules for Commenting on Watertown News Stories

  1. Charlie Breitrose,
    You are brilliant because we do need to take responsibility for our words on a public forum.

  2. Bravo Charlie. I love your new policy. Election season is right around the corner. Let’s all discuss the issues that we care about in our community in a calm, thoughtful way. Thanks so much for sharing your rationale and the new guidelines.

  3. I’ve never been bothered by people making anonymous comments. I feel that anonymity allows people who would otherwise fear backlash from others in the community to express their opinions freely. Also, there are times when a person signing their name to a comment creates an automatic bias on the part of those reading the statements because of personal opinions about the person. I feel that an opinion is an opinion worthy of being read, whether signed or not signed. Reading the statements of others encourages more clear thinking. Whether you agree with a statement or not, it does give you something to think about and I don’t care who is making the statement. In my opinion, it really shouldn’t matter who is making the statement. I also feel that there are some people, of course not all, who may have complained to you about anonymous commenting in an effort to silence others. I feel that with this new set of rules on anonymity, there is something that will be lost. There should of course be some restrictions on what is said. I also agree that the debating has sometimes gotten out of control and that people do go on personal attacks and that these are things that should be monitored. I myself have commented anonymously at times.

  4. Yes. I hope this is a trend, long overdue, that should be enforced on most public comment sites. There may be specific circumstances for anonymity, but I hope that ‘license’ is not handed out too widely. Free speech is a right, but anonymous cheap-shots are coarsening what should be public debate, and sidetrack/hijack the discussion

    • You are correct that “cheap-shots are coarsening what should be public debate”, but I have seen many “cheap-shots” made by people who do sign their names. I don’t understand why there is so much focus on whether the comment is made anonymously or not; the focus should be on the language used. I’ve also seen instances where two people who have signed their names and know each other will “sidetrack/hijack the discussion” and it becomes personal.

  5. Thank you Charlie. I think this policy is in the best interest of our citizens and still allows for a spirited debate about the issues in our town!

    • “vicious” comments should be monitored, but not all anonymous sources are using anonymity as a way to go after others personally.

  6. This is a “private” website, so feel free to run it how you will, but keep in mind that many people comment anonymously to avoid retribution from petty town officials who abuse their power and/or aggressive and mentally unstable neighbors/developers/contractors who think it’s perfectly fine to attack and oppress people who have opinions that differ from theirs or are voicing opinions that will cost them money. Those things are usually rare, but definitely do happen. When you are talking about town issues/projects with millions of dollars at stake, people can and will do unbelievable things to each other to get their way. Feel free to remove blatantly abusive comments, but I think the quality of the discourse on this website will deteriorate significantly if you suppress anonymity. Some further reading:

    • Thanks for your thoughts. I did consider that but people are not banned completely you can still State your concerns. It was more the long off topic discussions that I hope to avoid. Also my hope is more people will feel comfortable commenting so the quality will also improve.

    • Thank you Concerned Resident. Whoever you are, it doesn’t matter, the points you’ve made are quite valid and the information in the link you provided was very informative. I do hope that others take the opportunity to read it as well.

    • I also thank you. I have seen what a small town – THIS small town – can do to residents who voice their disagreements with the powers-that-be.

  7. Charlie –

    You say “I read comments before approving them to go on the site, but over the past year or so I feel some debates have gotten out of control” – but yet you approve them. Not sure I understand that concept. Why approve them?

    • I approved them because generally I like to let people have their say. However, in my opinion, it often out of control and was not productive, but rather was watching two or more people argue about things off the topic. Also, since I had not set out rules, I did not think it was fair to just start not approving things without telling readers. Thus the new rules and the announcement.

      In addition, I am going to be strict on no personal slights, attacks, or whatever you call them. Comments should be for the general Watertown News community, so commenters need to give background if they are writing about something not in the story, especially if it is directed at someone. Then I will read it and possibly approve it.

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