When The Daily Princetonian editors announced they were planning to review the newspaper’s online-commenting policy, they set off a campus-wide discussion that even drew a comment from 1 Nassau Hall. After a monthlong review, the Prince decided to retain the policy, with some slight modifications.
The newspaper’s website allows comments to be posted anonymously, and as editor-in-chief Henry Rome ’13 wrote in a Nov. 5 column, its comment sections are the most active of the Ivy League student newspapers. They also have been criticized for their negativity and for the prominence of “trolls,” personae with pseudonyms who critique others with caustic language.
While writing that the comments can be “productive and valuable,” Rome questioned whether they too often were offensive or off-topic, and whether there was any value in anonymity. “We look forward to the conversation,” Rome said in his initial column, which drew more than 50 comments (most anonymous).
The revised policy, outlined in a Dec. 14 column by Rome, continues anonymous commenting, but “tools to improve the quality of dialogue” will be added with the launch of the newspaper’s new website. To reduce spam, an email address will be requested for each comment, though Rome pointed out that the address “can be fake.” In addition, a voting system will allow readers to express approval or disapproval of individual comments, and related comments will be grouped.
When the policy review was announced, many students supported the current policy on comments, citing their entertainment value, their role in sharing information on sensitive subjects, and a concern that Web searches by potential employers would turn up controversial statements. “Openness and anonymity are crucial to the role these forums play as the only non-University outlet for discussion,” one student wrote.
In a letter to the editor published Nov. 26, President Tilghman called anonymous commenting the “verbal equivalent of a food fight.”
“Anonymity invites candor, to be sure, but it also invites thoughtlessness, not to mention malice and spite. In an academic community like ours, anonymous comments strike me as entirely out of place,” she wrote. “The Honor Code demands that students ‘own their words’ in their academic work.”
In a written response, former Prince editor-in-chief Ameena Schelling ’12 described Tilghman’s letter as an “attempt to limit the paper’s freedom in favor of bringing all publicly available discourse concerning the administration within the umbrella of its professional PR department.”
“Professors risk their jobs in commenting,” Schelling added. “Alumni have careers and public images they might not want tied to their opinions on the University. Students know every person involved in most of the paper’s articles.” None of these groups “would be able to comment freely if the comment policy were to change,” she said.
Evan Thomas, Ferris Professor of Journalism and a former Newsweek editor, expressed mixed feelings about the policy. “I don’t like the bullying and the crudeness and the trolls,” he said, but the policy “means that there are discussions that get at issues in ways that the regular paper can’t.”
Ultimately, Rome wrote, the benefits of anonymity won out: “While we will continue to monitor the comments for egregious remarks, we believe our [comment] boards are a marketplace of ideas.” He said he appreciated Tilghman’s views, but argued that the Honor Code does not apply to “an online forum of an independent news organization” and it is “not ours to enforce.”