By Jessica McBride Special to Published Feb 08, 2016 at 3:16 PM

The opinions expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the opinions of, its advertisers or editorial staff.

Over the weekend, word came that the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, beginning Feb. 15, will limit comment thread postings to its subscribers only, which means people’s identities will not be secret (at least to JS).

Good. About time. What took them so long?

However, they aren’t going far enough. People will still be able to hide their real identities from the public at large. This is wrong. So they’re taking a decent step here, but they’re not going far enough. Limiting the comments to subscribers verifies a person’s identity; make them use it.

The newspaper’s comment threads have long been an ugly bog of sexist, racist name calling. Wide open anonymity is a troll breeding ground, one that harms people and the community. The thoughtful comments that exist are drowned out by the cyber hate trolls. Credible news organizations should take ownership of their own platforms; they should take responsibility for what’s on them.

(Editor's note: OnMilwaukee staff members personally approve and disapprove all Talkback "comments" on the site. On Facebook, posts cannot be declined, but inappropriate comments can be hidden to general readers.)

Hate trolls usually lack the guts to put their names to their drivel. Credible news organizations should make them put their names to it. Say what you want about me, but I put my name to what I write.

The Internet is a double-edged sword. Every news organization, in my opinion, has an obligation to clear away the abuse. This isn’t about censoring vigorous debate; it brings to mind the old definition of obscenity. You know hate when you see it.

Have some standards.

The JS is not unique in this regard. Cyber abuse exists on many forums. We’ve all seen that, right? But supposedly credible news organizations should have more standards than Reddit.

Usually, hate trolls have an agenda of some sort (often it’s political). As for the JS comment threads, I long ago lost track of how many names and sexualized attacks and utterly false statements have been made about me on them too. I know I am not unique.

Crime stories, especially, bring out the worst in people. The Journal Sentinel’s crime story comment threads are often overtly racist. We’re better than this as a community. Major news organizations shouldn’t run any comment on their sites that they wouldn’t run in a letter to the editor. Would they run overtly racist letters to the editor? Of course not.

On the web, serious news organizations should act as gatekeepers of verified, credible information. The local TV news stations’ social media pages are just as bad. I’ve been routinely shocked by the racist comments that are posted on those threads. Since no news organization has time, likely, to moderate all of this, they should at least regulate it. Do that by making people reveal their names. That will stop the worst of it.

In that way, the JS isn’t going far enough. They’re still going to allow people to use handles; they just have to be subscribers, so the JS will know who they are. Frankly, I think we should all know who they are. I also think all news organizations have a responsibility to find the time to delete the worst stuff.

There is something about the impersonal nature of the Web that makes people’s inner viciousness come out. I just saw the movie "The Revenant," which is basically about everyone trying to kill everyone else (man vs. man, man vs. nature, man vs. bear, man vs. woman and so on). I left the theater and thought, "We still do this. We just use the Internet to kill each other now." Maybe that’s the base human instinct. Social control regulates it. Insert some.

I doubt the JS cares about the cyber attacks on me (I’ve complained about false, vile, sexualized abuse to them in the past that they simply refused to take down), but I’m glad they (belatedly) care about the attacks on everyone else. A major daily newspaper should not allow its site to be taken over by racist, sexist trolls. That’s not censorship. It’s about common decency.

This sort of thing is very damaging. Consider. Since I started voicing my opinion in the public square, I’ve been:

  • Called a whore (too many times to count).
  • Called a bitch (too many times to count).
  • Called a slut (too many times to count).
  • Called the c-word (too many times to count; there was even a talk radio segment about me being called the c-word after a liberal blogger directed that word at me).
  • Been threatened with rape (more than once).
  • Been threatened with bitch-slapping.
  • Been emailed pictures of strange men’s genitals (more than once).
  • Been called ugly, stupid, a bimbo and really every insult you can think of.
  • Had my (obviously clothed) Facebook profile picture photoshopped into a photo montage of a naked woman who is not me and didn’t really look like me – complete with my Facebook URL. This photo was placed on porn sites throughout the world, causing me to be harassed by name-calling strangers from foreign countries. When I reported this to the police, they said there was nothing they could do about it because it was not illegal because the naked woman was not really me. This happens to celebrities all of the time, I guess. And it’s not a crime if it’s not really them even if it’s designed to gin up harassment of them.
  • Had a woman’s face who vaguely looked like me photoshopped on a picture of a naked porn star and then this was emailed to me. The police got involved in that one too. I long ago reached the end of my rope for this kind of abuse.
  • Had fake satire sites that were created on social media solely to relentlessly mock, name call and viciously insult me and subject me to sexualized comments and attacks.

It’s really endless. It literally happens every single week. And it’s happened for 10 years, ever since I started voicing my opinions in the public square about politics. I don’t mind vigorous challenge about my ideas; I enjoy that. It goes much beyond that. And it’s not just men; it’s often women. It’s one thing to be called these things on unregulated sites. It’s another thing to be called some of them on major news organizations’ platforms.

So, the JS decision regarding comment threads really resonated with me. This problem is especially common when it comes to women in the public eye (we ALL have such stories), although I am sure men in the public eye endure it also (just look at the stuff Scott Walker is called). People don’t see public figures as human beings.

When this sort of venom and cyber abuse is directed instead at generalized groups of people like you see on some of the racist comment threads – such as at Muslims as a group, at African-Americans as a group, and so on – it causes emotional harm to the individuals who belong to those groups.

This kind of cyber abuse is extremely damaging to human beings. It leads to suicide. It leads to silencing of voices. It leads to emotional harm. It leads to reputational harm. On my Facebook wall, when I see people get this ugly, I delete it. I have a longstanding policy of banning people who are repeat offenders or who lodge overt ad hominem attacks (my ban list is, sadly, very, very long). I try to stop personal attack flame wars against other commentators on my wall midstream. I am trying to create a forum where people of different political backgrounds can debate the news of the day with civility.

I challenge all news organizations in town to start doing the same. Unless they want the comments because it’s online traffic. If so, then for shame.

So, the Journal Sentinel was right to regulate its comment threads, and everyone else with any decency should do the same. I’m just not sure why it took them so long.

Jessica McBride Special to

Jessica McBride spent a decade as an investigative, crime, and general assignment reporter for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and is a former City Hall reporter/current columnist for the Waukesha Freeman.

She is the recipient of national and state journalism awards in topics that include short feature writing, investigative journalism, spot news reporting, magazine writing, blogging, web journalism, column writing, and background/interpretive reporting. McBride, a senior journalism lecturer at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, has taught journalism courses since 2000.

Her journalistic and opinion work has also appeared in broadcast, newspaper, magazine, and online formats, including, Milwaukee Magazine, Wisconsin Public Radio, El Conquistador Latino newspaper, Investigation Discovery Channel, History Channel, WMCS 1290 AM, WTMJ 620 AM, and She is the recipient of the 2008 UWM Alumni Foundation teaching excellence award for academic staff for her work in media diversity and innovative media formats and is the co-founder of Media, the UWM journalism department's award-winning online news site. McBride comes from a long-time Milwaukee journalism family. Her grandparents, Raymond and Marian McBride, were reporters for the Milwaukee Journal and Milwaukee Sentinel.

Her opinions reflect her own not the institution where she works.