Joyce Terhaar

From the Executive Editor: Bee to change online reader commenting system

Joyce Terhaar
Joyce Terhaar

JOIN THE CONVERSATION: What has been your experience with online commenting? And do you think that named commenters will improve discussions of issues and events? Add your comment below. To write a letter, go to Or comment on our Facebook page at

We’ve heard from neighbors, readers, sources and the subjects of stories.

Why, they demand, doesn’t The Sacramento Bee do something about reader comments at

The commenting function on our site is intended to give you a voice and to encourage civic debate. It’s our goal to have a rich mix of readers sharing opinions and offering ideas or solutions to civic problems. Strong community engagement can strengthen our reporting as well, when additional voices, insight or even news tips are part of the discussion.

Yet if you are a regular reader of or contributor to our comments on stories posted at, you know the reality. Too many so-called trolls are using the comments to be mean, obscene or just plain rude. Too many readers are turned off by the tone and skipping comments altogether.

It’s time for a reset.

The utopian goal to give anyone in the community the ability to weigh in on important public decisions doesn’t work when readers are allowed to comment anonymously. It’s pretty ugly out there. Insults are common. Venom-filled comments tip the conversation into a darker place. At, about 50 anonymous commenters are responsible for much of the bad behavior. On any given day, readers flag between 300 to 400 comments to be deleted because they violate rules of libel or civility. Bee staff agree and remove about half of them.

The Bee always has required letters to the editor to have verified names attached to them before they are published in print and online editions. While that has not been the culture of the Internet, some companies are recognizing that anonymity is hurting the conversation, their credibility and their customers. In the last month Popular Science dropped commenting altogether. Huffington Post dropped all anonymous commenting. At The McClatchy Co., all newspapers except The Bee recently switched to commenting through Facebook only. We’re following suit, using a slightly different approach.

On Oct. 14 we will temporarily drop commenting from, encouraging readers to give us feedback about commenting while we finish the work to change our system. Our new approach will use sign-in through a variety of social media sites, such as Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and others. We will build on the fact that most social media accounts are identified with a real name and often a personal description. We want people who are commenting on our site to be proud to attach their names to their contributions.

In banning anonymous accounts for commenting, Huffington Post Managing Editor Jimmy Soni wrote that “comment sections can degenerate into some of the darkest places on the Internet” because of anonymous “trolls,” the name given to those who purposefully post inflammatory remarks to start an argument or upset people.

“We won’t eliminate every last note of negativity and nastiness on the site, but we believe this change will offer the guarantee of a gut check” when those commenting are identified, he wrote.

Such a gut check, however, doesn’t necessarily work when a commenter is affiliated with a special interest group and purposefully writes to mislead or obfuscate. That’s why Popular Science decided to take a more dramatic step, announcing it was responding to research indicating comments can “skew a reader’s perception of a story.”

Online content director Suzanne LaBarre wrote that the publication is “as committed to fostering lively, intellectual debate as we are to spreading the word of science far and wide.”

Yet, “because comments sections tend to be a grotesque reflection of the media culture surrounding them, the cynical work of undermining bedrock scientific doctrine is now being done beneath our own stories, within a website devoted to championing science,” she wrote.

Uncontrolled comments can become a credibility issue for any institution encouraging or allowing them on a website. That was clear Wednesday when 18 digital experts, editors and reporters gathered at The Bee to debate whether any anonymous commenting should be allowed once we switch systems next month.

Education reporter Diana Lambert said some parents have been reluctant to allow her to interview their children for fear commenters will verbally abuse them. Columnist Marcos Breton said he has had to advise some sources to not read comments when an issue is polarizing, because they will be upsetting. Investigative reporter Charles Piller has discovered the identity of some commenters on stories and that they intentionally lied about facts to change reader perception of a story.

Though they did not spend much time talking about personal attacks directed at Bee journalists, those can be every bit as vile as attacks against subjects of stories. One commenter, for instance, suggested two reporters who investigated cases of child abuse and death were interested only because they had their own issues with Child Protective Services.

Compare that to the civilized debates on Breton’s Facebook page. Breton moderates discussions in which participants speak passionately about their beliefs and positions. Even when the issue is one that riles, participants strongly disagree without name calling or threats. Breton is strict about behavior and those who violate his rules are booted. Everyone participating is identified. Their friends can see their comments.

That’s the tone we’ll seek with this change at I’ll consider it a win if the trolls realize that inflicting pain isn’t ever funny or clever – and if comments instead add constructive and civil discourse alongside The Bee’s journalism.