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Anonymity in media - the conversation continues

I really believe that informed citizens promote healthy democracy. But needlessly anonymous publishing can have the opposite affect; stifling conversation, fostering suspicion and turning people away.
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You know what, guys? When I write something, I sign my name. Here, I'll show you”.

-Sam Seaborn, character on "The West Wing"

Last week I had the opportunity to attend and speak at a conference on community media. An entire track was devoted to the care and feeding of young community journalism projects. As is nearly always the case, anonymous posting became a topic of conversation. My favorite comment came from an attendee quoting the character of Sam Seaborn (deputy White House communications director) on The West Wing: “You know what, guys? When I write something, I sign my name. Here, I'll show you”. That made me smile.

I don’t claim to be a journalism scholar, but I have seen that fostering community engagement requires building trust. And I also know that communities with robust flow of news, strong information systems and public debate have been shown to have more engaged residents. From what I have experienced, unless there is a compelling case where secrecy must, for safety's sake, trump conviction, anonymity does little to engender either.

Today, the conversation continues. (At least I hope it does). A Rapidian citizen reporter has posted (and signed his name to) an opinion piece calling out a series of recent anonymous op-ed pieces in a local publication. Agree or disagree with his opinion, I am pleased to see this topic surface once again on The Rapidian - a place where contributors are transparent with their identity. There is too much at stake for this community to simply ignore mud-slinging from the cover of darkness. The discussion needs to come out in the open.

I am the first to acknowledge there are specific instances where identifying a speaker is not the best option (political dissidents, whistle blowers, victims and potential targets of hate crimes, for instance). But I think it’s both problematic and counter-productive to accept anonymity as the default, rather than the exception. Too many of the same outlets that in the past steadfastly adhered to traditions of verifying the author identity of every letter to the editor, today provide and promote platforms for anonymous “commentary.” How is this a good thing? Does anonymity encourage productive conversation? Does it engage a broader diversity of thought and opinion? Not from what I’ve seen. More often it turns people away, destroys trust and brings out the worst.

I really believe that informed citizens promote healthy democracy. But needless anonymous publishing can have the opposite affect: stifling conversation, fostering suspicion and turning people away from sources that should be providing valuable information. But maybe I’m the one who needs enlightening. If so, I’d love to discuss it. But please, I am more apt to hear what you are saying if we do so in the light where I can see you.


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