Put your Name on it!

Posted by on January 25th, 2012

Stop Hiding Behind the Anonymous

I’m a huge fan of the media. I believe in its power, its vital role in a civil society and the need for free and unfettered speech. The vast majority of my professional career has been working in and around the media. For years I’ve watched the growth of social media and been awed its reach and immediacy. I’ve played around blogging, been on Twitter for years and believe wholeheartedly in its role as a legitimate form of communication.

Yet the debate over whether bloggers are journalists is yet to be decided. For the sake of argument (and anyone who knows me knows I love to argue), let’s assume that bloggers want to be journalists. Then they should abide by journalistic ethics on anonymity – both of sources and of byline – as a mainstream journalist.

On the social web we see that the training, oversight and ethical infrastructure that has been built up over centuries in mainstream journalism has yet to permeate blogs, Twitter, Facebook and other social media.

The anonymous source has been one of journalism’s most powerful and useful tools. Were it not for unnamed sources we would never have known about Watergate, the Pentagon Papers, Abu Ghraib and a myriad of other acts and actions that have taken place in the dark. Journalists like Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein certainly used anonymous sources, but they always put their names on the line. It was always their byline, their faces and their names.

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis put it best: Sunlight is the best disinfectant for fraud and other nefarious acts undertaken by governments, corporations and individuals.

Bloggers, tweeters and others who use social media as a means to become journalists often rely upon the power of anonymity to break “news.” The problem is that many of these participants in the social web ignore at least three key assumptions that traditional or mainstream journalists make when vetting and protecting anonymous sources:

A. These sources have an agenda;
B. Anything they say should be confirmed independently by documents or a second source;
C. An anonymous source’s statement should never go without oversight from an editor.

The official position of The New York Times on anonymous sources is followed by most of the major media: “The use of anonymous sources should be a last resort when the story is of compelling public interest and the information is not available any other way. A supervising editor must know the source’s identity.”

This topic touches upon the intersection of traditional media vs. new media. The need to “out” those things that should not be kept in the dark is real. But given the viral nature of the ‘net, the shield of anonymity creates the potential for the cruel to be mass consumed.

I plan to explore this topic further in my next post. Before I write, I’d like your opinion. What do you think about the use of anonymous postings by bloggers and others on the social web? Do you think people abuse the concept of anonymity and should they be held to a journalistic ethic?