By Raechal Leone
An overwhelming majority of editors and the public agree the content on news Web sites is just as credible as what they read in newspapers, according to highlights of a study released Friday.
They also agree it's beneficial that users share responsibility with journalists for the accuracy of content on a news site.
But the survey showed disagreement among editors and readers on whether anonymous postings should be allowed on news Web sites - with the editors surveyed voicing a stronger desire than the public for readers to give their real identities in their posts.
More than 60% of the editors surveyed said it would be harmful to good journalism to invite users to participate without using their real identities; only 43% of the readers surveyed said it would be harmful.
The study, conducted by the Associated Press Managing Editors and the Donald W. Reynolds Journalism Institute at the Missouri School of Journalism, had surveyed about 300 readers and 665 editors nationwide through mid-September.
The anonymity topic prompted the liveliest exchanges at Friday's session, with panelists weighing the value of anonymous posts to discussions for safety reasons against the value of having contributors give their names for credibility's sake.
Two of five reader participants on the panel said they have changed their names in online posts to thwart cyber stalkers.
Panel moderator David Ledford, executive editor of The News Journal in Delaware, asked panelists what would happen if newspapers required all posters to use their real names.
Panelists said the rule wouldn't keep away unruly posters; it would merely motivate them to find ways around the rules, such as using fake names, they said.
"There is an issue of personal safety," said panelist Jaymi Helen Cook, a corporate paralegal from Wilmington, Delaware, who posts regularly on The News Journal's Website, delawareonline.com. "Because you can't enforce (the rule to use a real name) and you can't make it legitimate, it's a moot question."
Michael A. Brown Sr., a city councilman from Wilmington said journalists should take seriously their role of providing a credible forum.
"The opportunity is there for someone to say some dangerous things and get away with it," Brown said.
But Cook argued for anonymous posts. She said that readers realize comments contributed by those sources and content provided by journalists are different.
"There is no implication that your paper is endorsing anything that's on those boards," she said.
Users tend to recognize trolls, or habitual users who are out to disrupt an online community, non-journalists on the panel said.
Ledford asked panelists whether other users can effectively "shout down" someone who's out to pollute the message boards.
"Most of the time that's possible, but that's the reason we have teachers in classrooms," said Christina Crapanzano, a senior at Boston University and former executive editor of the independent student newspaper there.
In the study findings, about 73% of the editors and 71% of the public who participated said they trusted information on news Websites as much as in print.
However, public participants were more likely than editors to say they trust the Web more than print. About 12% of the public and 3% of editors gave that response in the telephone interviews.
APME hatched the idea for the study after hearing editors say they wrestled with the issue of the credibility and their online operations, said Carol Nunnelley, APME's projects director. "Many of the editors said they felt mostly on their own in making the tough decisions."
People in the conference audience also got to participate: They voted electronically on some of the questions from the study.
The APME audience voted on whether they would leave several comments posted on a news Website.
Some 74% of audience voters said they would leave up a posting about Al Sharpton's recent visit to Jena, La., that included "Black people hate white people."
Some 84% of audience voters would leave up a post about a governor's trip to Sweden that was not disclosed until after she left. "This PIG needs to go," the post said.
About 53% of voters said they would leave up a post speculating whether a local political official is gay.