Friday, August 3, 2012

Anonymity and the Web

On Monday National Public Radio’s All Things Considered discussed a case in which the Spokane Review of Spokane, Wash., was willing to go to court to defend the anonymity of an on-line commenter who made a snarky comment that implied a woman was a thief and suggested she was also plump. The editor believed in fighting the case on the grounds of upholding the principle that they protect “sources.”
Here’s the link:
I found this odd because during the 20 years I worked for a small newspaper we rarely thought of letter writers as sources. We verified the names of all those writing letters to the –editor and required they identify themselves with their real names. In short, the principle we most adhered to was that writers should be responsible for their writing, a principle that we believed added to the integrity of both writers and the paper.
I still believe that – with some rare exceptions.
Most of the time we required that “sources” be named in the stories. We did protect those who gave us only tips and deep background – but the information they gave most often had to be verified by someone willing “to go on the record” which meant using the source’s name in print.  We very occasionally used an anonymous or unnamed source in order to protect the source, say when one was already a victim or could become one as a result of disclosing information.   (Think crime victim or in today’s world maybe war zone blogger). In a media ethics seminar, we were encouraged to explain to tipsters, particularly whistleblowing tipsters, what exposure and going on the record might mean -- that serving as a source might cause reaction, repercussions, consequences they might not be considering.
 It made sense to me.
As a critic, I wrote reviews for 20 year. As a journalist my name was on all reviews and the articles I wrote. If I made mistakes – and I did – I was responsible for them.  If I wrote unfair or nasty remarks, people could respond or pick up the phone and complain. As an employee, I was also responsible to the paper – If I made too many mistakes or was consistently perceived as unfair and nasty– which apparently I wasn’t, I would have been shown the door.
I confess that I wasn’t so high-minded that I didn’t have occasional snarky or catty thoughts. I confess that I occasionally thought of brilliant ways to describe people and actions that would have shown how clever I was – but may have embarrassed and made others angry. I even shared these words with friends. But I knew I didn’t want to say those things publically – in part because they would have been more about me than my subject.  So I found ways to say what I needed to say but say it as fairly and truthfully as I could.
Fast forward 20 plus years.
 I started a blog and considered writing anonymously. I was scared of all the crazy trolls and nasty people out there. I soon learned that crazy trolls don’t read blogs like mine. I’m not sure who does. I also decided I knew how to write thoughtfully and carefully enough that anything I had to say I would be willing to put my name on.
 And I decided writing should be a little scary. That’s part of the thrill of it.
Newspapers are dwindling. So now the new media  -- social and otherwise --are the ones struggling with the anonymity issue. According to the NPR story YouTube is starting to require real names and news organizations are increasingly encouraging commenters to login with a Facebook connection.
Good for them.
I don’t agree with the NPR source Dave Oliveria, who a runs a blog called Huckleberries Online in northern Idaho.  He defends anonymity as a way for free speech to exist.
"To have free speech in this community, I think you have to have anonymity," Oliveria argues. …
This may be true in a community where people do not have rights. This may be true for the truly oppressed or those in a war zone or where there could be real consequences to oneself and one’s family for recording what’s happening. It may be true for those who have stories of self-disclosure that could result in reprisals.
But for those who do have rights,  rights come with responsibilities. One way of writing responsibly is to stand behind what you write by putting your name on it.
But then again it sounds like Oliveria’s community is a war zone, fuelled in part by things said anonymously on blogs:
"In this town, there's so much infighting, if some of these folks identified themselves, they couldn't make these comments," Oliveria says. "I have a lot of folks online here that are in a lot of key positions in the community."
 I say it's time for that community to get rid of some of those folks “in key positions.”  Free speech is not irresponsible speech.  Often writing anonymously is just another way to bully. Like other forms of bullying, it’s cowardly. Good writing – comments and otherwise -- requires bravery.
  So  I say be brave. Write.  Stand behind your words; use your name.

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