understanding the importance and impact of anonymity and authentication in a networked society
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Media Sources: Does Anonymity Reduce Credibility?
By: Marsha Hanen

May 31, 2005

The New York Times for May 8, 2005 carried an interesting piece by Adam Cohen: “The Latest Rumbling in the Blogosphere: Questions About Ethics.” Cohen argues that the largest news blogs can no longer realistically be viewed as outside the mainstream media, citing the presence of bloggers “at national political conventions, at the World Economic Forum at Davos and on the cover of Business Week”, and pointing out that “blogs helped to shape…some of the biggest stories of the last year – the presidential election, tsunami relief, Dan Rather.”

As bloggers become increasingly influential in providing us with a substantial portion of our news, information and opinion, questions about their reliability and ethical standards arise. To what extent can we trust what we read in blogs, particularly when no general ethical rules apply and, in many cases, bloggers are anonymous so that we are unable to check even for basic conflicts of interest?

Cohen suggests that it is hypocrisy for bloggers to insist on standards of ethical journalism – checking facts, inviting response from subjects of stories, avoiding real or apparent conflicts of interest, correcting errors and separating editorial content from advertising – for mainstream media but not for themselves. More importantly, though, he argues that “the real reason for an ethical upgrade is that it is the right way to do journalism, online or offline.”

The anonymity issue is particularly intriguing in light of another article that appeared on the reverse of the very same page in the same issue of the New York Times. This was a piece by Daniel Okrent, the Times’ Public Editor entitled “Briefers and Leakers and the Newspapers Who Enable Them”.

Okrent discusses the issue of public mistrust of reporters’ use of anonymous sources (e.g., “according to a high-ranking official”) and “background briefings” which challenge our belief in the reliability and accountability of what appears on the news pages. It’s a question of integrity – not so much in the sense that we assume reporters are willfully misleading us, but in the sense that reporters, like others, are not above succumbing to the temptation, even in the face of insufficient evidence, to get something published before the competition does.

The Times’ Executive Editor Bill Keller told Okrent that reporters and editors “are obliged to tell readers how we know what we know…There are cases where we can’t, for excellent reasons – but they have to be exceptional, and they have to be explained to the reader.” The basic idea is that, although certain areas – criminal justice, diplomacy and intelligence reporting – could not function without anonymous reporting, in other areas reporters should use such sources only when there is, essentially, no other way to get the story, and the story is important enough to waive concerns about anonymity.

Coincidentally, the controversial Newsweek piece describing the alleged desecration at Guantanamo Bay of the Qu’Ran by flushing it down a toilet appeared on May 9, 2005, the very day after these two New York Times articles; and, as we saw, the rush to publish in that case led to dire consequences when passions were inflamed in several countries. At the very least, it would appear to be incumbent on the reporter to be certain of the facts. At this point, we still don’t know whether the desecration actually occurred – it may have, but it may not; and no reliable source has yet been prepared convincingly to confirm or deny it.

Since that article was published, we have seen the publication of the New York Times’ policy which Mr. Okrent was discussing; and, in addition to publishing an apology and a retraction, Newsweek has announced (May 23) a policy to limit the use of anonymous sources and to charge two senior editors with the responsibility of approving such sources. The reaction to the Newsweek “scandal” has brought about a flurry of comment on the Internet, on radio and television as well as in print and even from White House Press Secretary Scott McLellan.

So it’s clear that the mainstream media are struggling, as they should, with the issue of when and how it is legitimate (and ethical) to use anonymous sources. And it’s reasonable to ask whether questions of anonymous reporting, opinion writing and advertising are different when the writing occurs online from situations in which it occurs in a print medium. Of course, as Cohen points out, bloggers often claim not to be journalists at all, but rather activists, or humorists or something else, and this is fair enough; but if they want to be taken seriously as responsible political writers and commentators, then perhaps it’s not unreasonable to expect similar measures of accountability from bloggers as from “mainstream” journalists.

Anonymity, both on the Internet and more generally, is well known to be one of those “on the one hand” and “on the other hand” issues. In the media there has long been an emphasis on the “scoop”, and Woodward and Bernstein’s All the President’s Men made investigative reporting using “deep throats” glamorous. All to the good, we might say. But the general canons of good journalism, including checking and confirming facts must still be operative, and quality should, presumably, trump sensationalism.

Probably what should worry us is a situation in which writers are so caught up in a “gotcha” mentality that they think it’s acceptable to cut corners and publish items where they are unable to obtain suitable confirmation. In justification of this practice, some say the give and take of public discourse will correct errors over time. Perhaps so, but in the meantime, reputations can be smeared, actions set in motion and people can be harmed, even killed. At the very least, ethical considerations would appear to require that consequences be taken into account when evaluating the use of anonymous sources. On the reader’s side, the best defense may have to continue to be a healthy and even heightened skepticism.

Marsha Hanen is the President of the Sheldon Chumir Foundation for Ethics in Leadership.
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