When Anonymity Doesn’t Fit

September 13th, 2011 by The Responsibility Project

From blogs to journalistic attribution, has anonymity become a dangerous norm?

Brought to you by Liberty Mutual's
The Responsibility Project

When a journalist for the Los Angeles Times granted anonymity to a Washington official who commented on an increase in domestic surveillance, one reader responded with a compelling objection: “I'm wondering why you chose to grant anonymity to the ‘senior law enforcement official’[…]The assertions made by that anonymous official plainly serve the political and policy interest of the current administration and his/her comments place that official in absolutely no personal or career jeopardy whatsoever.”

Times Bureau Chief David Lauter called anonymous sources a “vexing problem,” particularly in Washington. He told the Times, “Government officials have adopted anonymity as a routine operating procedure, speaking to reporters only under the guise of the ubiquitous ‘senior administration official’[…]We do our best to push back against this practice and get as much on the record as we can, but over time, the press has steadily lost ground on that.”

If the press has lost ground on resisting anonymity, bloggers and online forums never had it. Miami Herald columnist Leonard Pitts Jr. wrote that because of anonymity online, message boards and blog comment sections have turned into, “havens for a level of crudity, bigotry, meanness and plain nastiness that shocks the tattered remnants of our propriety.” With no requirement “to own what they’ve said,” Pitts says, anonymous posters are free to “vent their most reptilian thoughts.”

Editors at the Cleveland Plain Dealer unmasked an anonymous commenter using the alias “lawmiss” to post “provocative comments and scathing personal attacks” on the newspaper’s website, including disparaging remarks about a local lawyer. After the Plain Dealer ran a story revealing that the comments came from the email account of a judge who was presiding over some of the lawyer’s cases, the judge sued, claiming the newspaper had violated her privacy.

Anonymous commenting is “under attack from several directions,” The New York Times reports, with news sites in particular grappling with ways to force commenters to act more responsibly. “If commenters were asked to provide their real names for display online, some would no doubt give false identities,” The Times said, “and verifying them would be too labor-intensive to be realistic.”

Enough,” says columnist Pitts. “Make them leave their names. Stop giving people a way to throw rocks and hide their hands.”

When do you think anonymity is appropriate? Does it protect government officials and enable a free press, or is it a free pass from taking responsibility for what you say? Sound off here.

(A portion of this story was previously published as, “Anonymous Comments on the Block” on The Responsibility Project on 5/7/10)