The Readers Must Be Transparent, Too

The listserv of the Online News Association, an association of professionals who run news media sites, has been discussing the viability of unmoderated, anonymous discussion forums. The discussion arose after The Washington Post temporarily turned off the comments facility on its Post.Blog due to “hundreds” of comments “including personal attacks, the use of profanity and hate speech.”

An ONA member on Friday cited what I’d written here months ago against unmoderated, anonymous discussion forums. A bit later, another ONA member posted something else that made me realize many news professionals mistake pseudonymity for anonymity.

So, I today entered the discussion, to clarify the difference between those terms and also write about a widespread fallacy that’s impeding progress towards building a better future for media, things I generally discuss only with my clients.

I reproduce my posting below because I want it to be accessible outside that listserve. Because the ONA might prefer to keep its discussions (including any about transparency?) private, I’ve disguised the names of ONA members who I quote. (An additional irony here is that the comments function on this blog still isn’t working. So, e-mail me your comments and I’ll include any I see fit.):

[UPDATE: I erred. A friend at Online Journalism Review has informed me that New England Courant Publisher James Franklin DID NOT know that his sixteen year-old brother and apprentice Benjamin was the pseudonymous ‘Silence Dogood’ until AFTER publishing 14 anonymous articles slipped under his newspaper’s door at nights between April and October of 1722. The elder Franklin was upset when he discovered the author’s true identity and it contributed to a lifelong schism between the brothers.

Walter Isaacson‘s recent biography of Ben Franklin (which cites as its source about ‘Silence Dogood’) however mentions this as the only time when Benjamin Franklin used a pseudonym without the prior knowledge and approval of a publisher.

I erred, but think the correct facts still point to recklessness by that publisher, who soon served jail time for his own writings in the Courant and the Boston authorities later banned from publishing newspapers. I’ve corrected what I wrote below, striking out the earlier paragraphs.

SECOND UPDATE: Online Journalism Review has published as an article a version of this posting.

Xxxxx Xxxxxxxxxx on Friday, January 21, 2006 at 0354 UMT wrote:
> While I understand how tying comments to names
> may have help people recognize their personal
> responsibilities, I also know there is a rich
> history of anonymity in American journalism,
> going back to the early blogger Silence Dogood.

Anonymous to the readers or to the publisher?

‘Silence Dogood’ has been pointed to as the mother of a rich history of anonymity in American journalism. What is true is that between April and October of 1722 New England Courant Publisher James Franklin printed 14 anonymous articles that had been slipped under his door.

The author ‘Silence Dogood’ claimed to be the widow of a country minister, but Franklin suspected the name was a pseudonym for someone else. It was common for eighteenth century journalists, including Franklin’s, to use pseudonyms when writing articles that the authorities might have been considered to be libelous or illegal.

Historical records infer that James Franklin knew the identities of his other pseudonymous contributors, but not that of ‘Silence Dogood’. That failing was perhaps one of many reckless publishing decisions by Franklin, who soon served jail time for his own writings in the Courant and who the Boston authorities later banned from publishing newspapers. He was meanwhile not amused to learn that ‘Silence Dogood’ was actually his 16 year-old brother and apprentice Benjamin Franklin.

The publisher of ‘Silence Dogood’ knew exactly who ‘she’ really was before ‘her’ writings were published in the newspaper. In fact, New England Courant Publisher James Franklin knew his sixteen year-old brother and apprentice Benjamin very well in 1722 before letting Ben use that pseudonym.

Unlike James Franklin, American Weekly Mercury Publisher Andrew Bradford of Philadelphia a few years later knew before publication that “Caelia Shortface” and “Martha Careful” were pseudonyms for journeyman printer Ben Franklin, who’d fled Boston and joined his employ and started writing articles under the pseudonyms “Caelia Shortface” and “Martha Careful” in that Philadelphia newspaper.

As did American Weekly Mercury Publisher Andrew Bradford a few years later when journeyman printer Ben Franklin joined his employ and started writing articles under the pseudonyms ‘Caelia Shortface’ and ‘Martha Careful’ in that Boston newspaper.

When later Ben Franklin himself became a newspaper publisher in Philadelphia, he occasionally published his own articles under the pseudonyms ‘Anthony Afterwit’ and ‘Alice Addertongue.’ Yet the ‘Richard Saunders’ of the eponymous book Poor Richard’s Almanac was probably Publisher Ben Franklin’s best-known, self-permitted pseudonym.

There is a rich history of pseudonymity in American opinion journalism. Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay wrote The Federalist Papers using the pseudonym ‘Publius,’ but not without their publisher’s prior permission and knowledge of their true identities. A more recent example occurred in 1947 when the publisher of Foreign Affairs granted the Moscow-based American diplomat George Kennan the pseudonym ‘X’ to write the renowned political essay proposing the geographic containment of Communism.

Though I can’t think of a current American periodical that regularly grants pseudonyms to its writers, the British publishers of the Financial Times and The Economist regularly grant them for some of their columnists. However, those publishers know their columnists’ true identities and vet the columns beforehand.

In all the examples I’ve mentioned, the publishers not only knew the pseudonymous writers’ true identities beforehand but also vetted the writers’ submissions before publication. That’s a far cry from publishing anonymous blog postings.

Though there is a rich history of pseudonymity in American journalism, there is none of anonymity. It has long been understood that if the publisher of a reputable periodical grants a writer use of a pseudonym, then that publisher knows the writer’s true identity and takes responsibility — legal and otherwise — for that writer’s words.

Printed periodicals grant pseudonymity but never anonymity. Imagine the cacophony that would result if printed periodicals published unvetted, unreviewed, and anonymous Letters-to-the-Editor or Op-Ed essays.

Yet we’re now discussing how some of those periodicals’ are doing the equivalent of that online. Should there really be any surprise that many of those comments are scatological, obscene, or libelous?

Publishing anonymous, unvetted, and unreviewed commentary is a huge difference from those publications’ print editions’ policies. It’s a different kettle of fish, one that can stink for the publishers. Indeed, those publishers and their new-media managers are being reckless. And if you think I’ve used too strong a word, poll newspaper libel lawyers and libel insurers.

Xxxx Xxxxxxxxx at 11:39 hrs UMT on 20 February 2006 noted:
> Forgive me, but I would respectfully suggest
> that the topic IS worth discussing more than
> once, particularly in a medium evolves as fast
> as ours.

Yes, it’s certainly worth discussing again and again. But we do realize that, for human reasons, the topic has not evolved during the past 10 years despite the evolution of technology. This topic is substantially the same as it was when the first open bulletin boards were posted on the Web in 1996 or when the first proprietary online service user forums went online years earlier. Online news managers who don’t know its history are doomed to relive it.

Although the technologies of this medium evolve with the speed of ‘Moore’s Law,’ the actual laws and liabilities governing the technologies evolve about as fast as the eponymous Gordon Moore can walk (he celebrated his 77th birthday this month). That is because the mechanical topic of technology and the human topic of ethics aren’t related to each other. Although we may strive to offer bulletin boards and commentary fields where people might provide thoughtful and ethical comments without scatology, obscenity, or libel, we cannot and will not achieve that through technology alone.

What I’m about to state might seem farfetched, but a decade of studying online news media leads me to fear that it is true:

I fear that our industry has fallen under the spell of a techno-utopian fallacy that says we can foster a renaissance in journalism, civic involvement, and comity simply by implementing new-media technologies.

We implement technology that permits absolutely anonymous and spontaneous publication of people’s comments and we expect the majority of those comments will be decent, civil, and legal. We implement technology that allows readers to correspond with reporters and we expect those reporters will answer those readers’ e-mails. We implement technology that allows readers themselves to report the news and we expect that they will report a significant percentage of all stories in the future. We implement such technologies and our publishers expect that it all should be completely automated and not need extra supervisory or moderation staffing. And if a problem develops, we expect newer technology alone to solve it.

Yet we live in the real world, not a techno-utopian virtual world. Our real online environment is infested with spams, scams, phishers, filthy ranters, and libelous demagogs. The wonderful technologies we’ve implemented actually attract and facilitate them. (If technologies existed that permitted anonymous, unvetted, and unmoderated letters to be published in printed publications, then scatological, obscene, and libelous Letters-to-the-Editor would appear there, too.)

Technology alone cannot foster a renaissance in journalism, civic involvement, and comity. What we need are policies and practices to govern how our readers utilize these online technologies.

I realize that fans of We Media and We the Media (particularly those who think that mainstream media ‘talks down’ to readers) might flinch at my using the phrase “govern how our readers utilize.” But media cannot offer transparency to the readers unless the readers are also willing to be transparent. If ‘News is a Conversation,’ then transparency is required among all conversants, including the readers.

Radicals might claim that the media must be absolutely subordinate to the readers. Yet just as the government must be subordinate to its citizens, no citizen can claim rights beyond the compact of government. If the readers are to govern how media operates, them no reader who wants to interact with the media should claim rights beyond that which the readers themselves demand from the media. Anonymous postings are neither an exercise in transparency nor is the permitting of them.

Why do so many otherwise pragmatic people in our industry think that their only choice is between accepting unmoderated and anonymous comments or else accepting none at all? I think it is because absolutism is part of the dogma of the techno-utopian fallacy. The choice about publishing comments needn’t be an absolute or polar decision. The true path is amid.

If you’re going to let anyone publish something in your publication, whether in print or online, know their identity and read their submission before its publication. If they are truly willing to stand behind their words, then they must be willing to withstand identification by the publisher who has legal responsibility for the publication of their words.

If they request that the publisher disguise or omit their identity in publication, let them first provide the publisher with a cogent reason why. (The publisher should state somewhere on the page’s boilerplate that a writer’s name may be withheld for reasons but only after prior identification.)

Yes, I know that this will create work for the online publishing staff. Tough. If you want to offer your readers the facility to comment, then you must adequately staff that facility or else cacophony can result (as it has in many cases.) Publishers who think that just because this facility involves computers, then it should operate autonomously and without staff moderation and supervision are deluded by the techno-utopian fallacy. There is no free lunch online.

You may have to identify by phone or e-mail the readers who submit comments, or perhaps you can build a registration system that adequately does this. You may also be able to build a system that filters out scatological or obscene terminology, but you should still review the submissions that survive those filters. Trust your readers, but don’t do so blindly. Blindness doesn’t foster transparency.

If a renaissance in journalism, civic involvement, and comity is ever to be fostered, it must be fostered responsibly and without absolutism. Rights are also responsibilities. We have responsible free speech, not absolute free speech (don’t yell ‘Fire!’ in a crowded theatre unless there is a fire). You are irresponsible to your publisher, readers, transparency, and journalism if you offer absolute anonymity and spontaneous publication in your comments sections. You might get away with it for a while, but not forever.

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