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Jon K. Rust

Jon K. Rust is publisher of the Southeast Missourian and co-president of Rust Communications.

Opinion

New policy for semissourian.com online commentary: No pseudonyms

The Southeast Missourian's web and mobile site, www.semissourian.com, is changing its "online comments" policy, effective 9 a.m., April 17. Pseudonyms -- or anonymous comments -- will no longer be allowed at the end of news stories or in news forums. Those already making comments will need to confirm that they know their real names will now be attached before new comments can be made.

(Past comments will remain on site with previous pseudonyms intact: www.semoball.com commentary will continue status quo as the news site policy is evaluated.)

Meanwhile, Southeast Missourian staff will seek to provide more information in the comments section of stories, where appropriate.

Why the changes?

Several reasons. For one: we've been following the "Engaging News Project" at the University of Texas at Austin. The project "envisions a vibrant American news media that more effectively empowers the public to understand, appreciate, and participate in the democratic exchange of ideas."

Project research indicates that the American public strongly appreciates (81 percent of survey respondents) when a news organization provides factual context in response to comments.

The survey of 12,000 people also indicates that on average 73 percent of respondents would like it if experts on the topic of the article responded.

One challenge for the Southeast Missourian is that some local experts indicate an unwillingness to respond with direct commentary in online forums as long as comments are not "signed." Their concern is that the comments are oftentimes unserious or intentionally provocative merely to stir the pot. They also believe that some individuals use the commentary section of www.semissourian.com to attack others out of personal grudges and not honest disagreement.

Is this true? In some ways, whether it is true or not isn't pertinent. If the perception about anonymity is tamping down official response to commentary, then we believe it's worthwhile to see what happens by removing the option of anonymity.

Our hope is that public officials engage, educate and inform oppositional ideas rather than seek to quash them through back channels. By engaging, everyone becomes wiser.

Will local institutions and "experts" actually engage in such a way? We shall see. But www.semissourian.com online commentary is read by thousands of people. It's a powerful way to get a message out. And in meetings with leaders of various local institutions, all were enthusiastic about the change and almost all pledged their commitment to engage, including: Cape and Jackson schools; Cape and Jackson Chambers; Magnet; Charlie Herbst of the Cape Girardeau County Commission; City of Cape Girardeau; and City of Jackson (to be determined how with no public information officer). Cape Girardeau Police Department was supportive and interested but non-committal.

While www.semissourian.com will no longer allow anonymous commentary, we continue to welcome corrections to stories and news tips via our web or mobile site, which can be signed or anonymous. To access, see links above and below each story that say: "Report error" and "Send News Tip". We encourage you to use these links if you have valuable information that makes a story better, corrects a mistake we've made or provides a lead on an important or engaging topic.

Finally, www.semissourian.com will continue to rely upon our reader community in holding commentary to standards. It is impractical for Southeast Missourian staff to monitor and approve all comments in advance of publishing, and doing so increases our legal liability. However, we do review all comments reported as failing community standards. To do that, a reader simply needs to click on the "Report this comment to editor" button found beneath a comment. Just because a comment is flagged doesn't mean it will be removed. But it will be drawn to editorial management's attention for review.

To further assist community monitoring, you might check out www.semissourian.com/opinion. There, you can find links to all recent comments, listed chronologically in two sections: one for story comments, a second for Speak Out forums. These links provide those interested a quick way to review all comments on the site.

In the end, our goal is to provide a valuable forum for the public to engage with current events and public policy, to enhance our democratic process by sharing ideas and information, and to create a community that is insightful, relevant and productive. Thank you for your engagement in this process.

For suggestions on how the Southeast Missourian can further improve commentary on www.semissourian.com, please comment below (if reading online), email me directly or use the "Send News Tip". Thank you for reading.

Jon K. Rust is publisher of the Southeast Missourian. His email: jrust@semissourian.com.

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