Chilling (on) anonymity?

The Spokane Spokesman-Review has become a national symbol – in journalistic and web circles anyway – in the discussion on anonymity on the web … a subject a lot of journalists feel some real angst about.

On one hand, there’s little doubt that anonymous sources can be highly useful, not just to reporters but to readers and to the public. I’ve seen several such cases at fairly close range (though I’ve never had to rely much on them myself).

Supplying data on the q.t., as a whistle-blowing maneuver, is one thing. But the kind of crud that infests so many comment sections of so many web sites surely are something else. Have you read the garbage people wrote about Andy Griffith after his death on news sites? Andy Griffith?

So we were coming here: An anonymous commenter on the (excellent) Huckleberries blog, run by the Spokesman-Review, made unsubstantiated allegations of illegality against a Kootenai County Republican official, and the office sued the paper for the names of three anonymous commenters involved. A judge ruled that there was no need to release two of them, since what they said clearly wasn’t libelous, but that one statement may in fact have been – and the name has to be released. The paper hasn’t yet responded. The case has the potential to become something of a landmark.

Standing up for the anonymity of participants in news discussions has long been a firm tenet among news people. But there’s clearly angst.

It’s worth quoting this blog post from Shawn Vestal, of the Spokesman, who notes first the journalistic tradition, then:

But what has emerged in the era of online commenting is, about three-quarters of the time, a sewer of stupidity and insults and shallowness. The visions of a digital public square, with less gatekeeping and more democratic forums for discourse, seem quaint and comical in the light of what has actually come to pass.

I have mostly stopped reading the comment threads on the newspaper’s website, because it is almost always infuriating and pointless. It is especially so when I have persuaded someone to share their story – only to see them mocked for their painful experiences or physical appearance. Which is common.

The idea that the newspaper has to spend time and treasure defending this nonsense – not protecting a whistleblower; not battling the government for access to public records – is repulsive.

He makes a strong point.

When I worked on daily newspaper editorial pages, one absolute requirement of letters to the editor was that they be signed, and that those signatures be verified. (I know this: I often had to make those phone calls to verify identity.) That rule generally still applies, at many papers. Why then should comments be so anonymous?

(Don’t talk to me about unsigned editorials, either; the people in charge at the paper, most usually and principally the publisher, can reasonably be attached to those.)

This site, by the way, still allows anonymous commenting. For now. But that could change, as many other sites have, in recent years, changed. It’s just that the anonymity hasn’t been a big problem for us. Yet.

This may be something newspapers, and a lot of other organizations, soon have to confront.

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