As the 2008 presidential campaign wound down, a Fox News TV report relayed a variety of negative attacks on Sarah Palin, the Republican vice presidential candidate, that it attributed to members of presidential candidate John McCain’s campaign staff. Palin denounced the attackers—all of whom had been granted anonymity—as cowards.
Palin was right to be angry. The TV report was a perfect example of why anonymous critics should not be taken seriously—in fact, of why they should usually be flatly disbelieved.
Anonymous sources are one of professional journalism’s worst habits. Their constant appearance, especially in newspapers and broadcast news outlets that ought to know better, turns otherwise respectable institutions into gossip mongers and invites audiences to doubt what they’re being told.
Ombudsmen at the Washington Post and New York Times have repeatedly scolded their colleagues not just for their incessant use of anonymous sources, but also for the journalists’ flouting of internal policies banning what they’re doing. It makes no difference, apparently, because the “anonymice,” as media critic Jack Shafer calls them, just keep on appearing.
Shafer notes that he’s no absolutist on these things, understanding that in some kinds of situations anonymous sources are vital. We learned about the Bush administration’s illegal wiretapping program against Americans because someone spilled it to the New York Times (though the newspaper unaccountably held the story for a year before publishing it). But before the U.S. invaded Iraq we also “learned” via anonymice quoted in the same paper—the quotation marks are deliberate—that Saddam Hussein’s regime had weapons of mass destruction. These, of course, were lies laundered through the newspaper by an administration that was hell-bent to create a case for war.
One of the more ridiculous ways news organizations pretend to be more transparent about an inherently opaque practice is to offer reasons why the sources can’t allow themselves to be identified by name.
Occasionally it makes sense, as a former Times Reader representative, Clark Hoyt, noted when a Good Samaritan at a New York assault didn’t want his name published because the assailant was still at large. But Hoyt was too much the gentleman when he termed “baffling” a story in which a source was granted anonymity “because he was discussing drug-testing information.”
I have a rule of thumb. When a news report quotes anonymous sources, I immediately question the entire thing. I’m skeptical enough about spin from people who stand behind their own words, but downright cynical about the people who use journalist-granted anonymity to push a position or, worse, slam someone else.
When someone hides behind anonymity to attack someone else, you shouldn’t just ignore it. In the absence of actual evidence, you should actively disbelieve it. And you should hold the journalist who reports it in contempt for being the conduit.
New media are a wider world of anonymous and semi-anonymous claims and attacks. The blogger who refuses to identify himself or herself invites me to look elsewhere, unless I’m persuaded by a great deal of evidence that there’s good reason to stick around. And, as I said earlier, the anonymous commenters on blogs or news articles deserve less than no credibility on any BS meter; they deserve to start in deep minus territory. Where would I put the attacks on Palin? Well, given the sources (Fox and the anonymous people launching these verbal grenades), I’d start below zero and wait for some evidence.
Pseudonyms are a more interesting case, and can have value. Done right, they can bring greater accountability and therefore somewhat more credibility than anonymous comments. Content-management systems have mechanisms designed to require some light-touch registration, even if it’s merely having a working email address, and to prevent more than one person from using the same pseudonym on a given site. A pseudonym isn’t as useful as a real name, but it does encourage somewhat better behavior, in part because it’s more accountable. A pseudonymous commenter who builds a track record of worthwhile conversation, moreover, can build personal credibility even without revealing his or her real name (though I believe using real names is almost always better.)
Ultimately, as we’ll discuss later, conveners of online conversations need to provide better tools for the people having the conversations. These include moderation systems that actually help bring the best commentary to the surface, ways for readers to avoid the postings of people they find offensive, and community-driven methods of identifying and banning abusers.
For all this, I want to emphasize again that we should preserve anonymity when used responsibly, and appreciate why it’s vital. Anonymity protects whistle-blowers and others for whom speech can be unfairly dangerous.
But when people don’t stand behind their words, a reader should always wonder why and make appropriate adjustments.