Go to Top

Unmasking Anonymous Commenters

detail of Disqus comment box for a guest account
image by Sean MacEntee

The term “journalism ethics” is, when you get right down to it, about earning and keeping faith.

A publication keeps faith with its audience by being as accurate as possible and by promptly correcting any errors. Journalists keep faith with their sources by keeping promises in exchange for the information such sources provide - and no promise is more important than protecting the identity of a source who is unwilling to be named. Many a reporter, and some editors, have been willing to go to jail rather than break that promise.

So what about a newspaper that promises readers who comment anonymously that it will cloak their identities, only to break that promise later?

Depending on the circumstances, it may be a breach of privacy laws, or a breach of an express or implied contract between the publication and the commenter. In nearly every circumstance, it is unquestionably a breach of basic journalism ethics.

This question is not a hypothetical one. The Montana Standard, a daily paper in Butte, Montana, has decided to make a change to its commenting policy, eliminating the option to post under anonymized usernames. The problem is that the Standard is making the change retroactive. Unless people actively request that the paper’s website remove former comments, those comments will switch to displaying a user’s real name as of January 1.

Writing at “Public Citizen Consumer Law & Policy Blog,” Paul Alan Levy explained the myriad problems with this decision, ranging from the paper’s questionable claim that it is technically impossible to shield existing commenters’ anonymity to its misplaced confidence that it will reach all past commenters in time for them to request their comments be taken down if they want to opt out. In addition, Eugene Volokh of The Washington Post’s blog “The Volokh Conspiracy” pointed out that the Standard’s decision seems to directly violate the publication’s existing privacy policy, which assures users that amendments to the policy will not apply to information shared before the changes took effect.

All of these criticisms are valid, but the biggest problem with the Standard’s decision remains the ethical dimension. As a journalist, you should not promise anonymity to a source and then strip it for your own reasons, no matter how noble. And someone who provides information or commentary on a newspaper’s website is, when you think about it, a journalistic source - just one that the reporter did not happen to tap prior to publication.

Unlike Levy, who favors preserving anonymous commenting under active moderation, I do not disagree with the Standard’s policy change on its face. I detest anonymous comments. In far too many cases, anonymity serves as a cloak for those too rude or too cowardly to associate themselves with their own points of view. This is why our firm’s blog does not publish comments except under a commenter’s real name.

Every rule has its exceptions, of course, and I can certainly see myself making an exception for someone who is in real personal danger - physical or otherwise - but who has important information to impart. Those who are members of small, insular communities or who choose to the blow the whistle on abuses in powerful organization may merit such protections. In such a case, however, it seems that a newspaper ought to have that source work with a reporter, not just post an unverified comment on a website. An email reaching out to the editor or the reporter covering a certain beat seems a likely first step, and the Standard’s website offers a directory that would make it possible.

I have lived in small towns. I live in one now, part of the time. Sometimes I choose to speak out about something on my mind, and sometimes I decide that the issue in question is not worth the aggravation my comments would bring me or my neighbors. It would not occur to me to make my comments anonymously, though, even in a place where everyone knows one another. I am willing to be accountable for what I say. If everyone held to that standard, we would have a lot fewer trolls on the Internet.

Yet despite my opinions on anonymous comments, I feel still more strongly that a journalist’s ethical obligation is to preserve the trust he or she has created. If I promised anonymity to a commenter, on my firm’s blog or elsewhere, I would have no right to break my pledge - certainly not ethically, and arguably not legally either.

Working journalists (including those in Montana) sometimes take umbrage when I observe that in the context of a blog like my firm’s “Current Commentary” feature, we are all journalists. Funny how I still believe the profession’s ethical canons apply on my site, while the editors of a long-established newspaper in the state where I studied journalism seem to think such strictures no longer apply on theirs. Or at least that they do not apply to the benefit of members of the public who shared their viewpoints under the promise of anonymity.

Larry M. Elkin is the founder and president of Palisades Hudson, and is based out of Palisades Hudson’s Fort Lauderdale, Florida headquarters. He wrote several of the chapters in the firm’s recently updated book, Looking Ahead: Life, Family, Wealth and Business After 55. His contributions include Chapter 1, “Looking Ahead When Youth Is Behind Us,” and Chapter 4, “The Family Business.” Larry was also among the authors of the firm’s book The High Achiever’s Guide To Wealth.

The views expressed in this post are solely those of the author. We welcome additional perspectives in our comments section as long as they are on topic, civil in tone and signed with the writer's full name. All comments will be reviewed by our moderator prior to publication.

, , , , ,