I have to confess I have mixed feelings about online comments.
On the one hand, I believe people need to own their words, as journalism professor John Hatcher argues here, and that they will be more circumspect if their name is attached to them.
On the other, there's a case to be made that people can speak -- or will speak -- more honestly when they have a measure of anonymity.
Anonymity is not a good thing when it enables people to slur or insult the views or beliefs of others. But sometimes people have valuable contributions to make and do not feel comfortable attaching their name to their comments for a variety of legitimate reasons.
So I take the middle ground: I like the idea of having people register with a site, even though this might discourage one-time commenters, as this does offer some accountability. And I believe people should be able to use their own name, a screen name or choose to be anonymous.
Editorial policy should be clearly posted, and posts that violate that policy should be taken down, either by the site editor or after they are flagged by readers. This policy should closely mirror that of the letters to the editor policy used at most newspapers.
The letters policy at the newspaper I edit states that the paper "does not discriminate based on the views expressed in letters. The editor reserves the right to reject letters containing factual inaccuracies, unattributed quotes or insulting or libelous statements." I think this is a good policy for online comments as well.
While comments can enhance the reader experience and spark debate, there are many stories that will not benefit from comments. I agree with the Minneapolis Star Tribune's decision to turn off comments for hot-button issues that cause outpourings of venom from readers. If the objective is to give the reader a positive experience which includes the respectful exchange of opinions and ideas, that goal is not furthered by allowing people to engage in name-calling and mud slinging, which sadly has become all too common in the online world.
Comments are not and should not be the only way readers can respond to a story: In cases where comments are "turned off," the publication should offer readers other ways to respond, such as by e-mailing the editor.
There's an excellent German expression about dealing with certain kinds of people: "to be enjoyed with caution." This also applies to online comments.