Kevin Hoover: What Would You Do?

We had one of those journalism-type conundrums come up last week, and made a decision we weren't necessarily clear on or comfortable with. So we'll throw the dilemma over to you, the readers, to weigh in on.

We received a letter to the editor from someone using a nom de plume, otherwise known as a false name, essentially making the letter anonymous. That goes against our attribution policy, which is one that was also held by the Arcata Eye and McKinleyville Press, and most other mainstream newspapers.

We've had a lot of experience with fake-name letters. Often they are attempts to get someone in trouble, smear an enemy or otherwise score points without taking responsibility. Letter writers have used false names, names of neighbors and rivals, even the names of journalists and public officials.

People are more responsible – that is, more fact-based and less inclined toward personal attacks – when they have to put their name on things. You can see this simply by looking at the anonymous comments on any blog or news site that allows them. Requiring the name generally makes for a more substantive and idea-based discussion.

The usual excuse for not including a real name is fear of retaliation – from neighbors, an employer, maybe a business or the government. One time someone wrote a column for the Eye decrying poor driving on Arcata's streets, and used a false name. I asked her why she didn't use her real name, and she said, per routine, that she was afraid of retaliation. By the Crappy Driver Vigilantes Union? It's my distinct sense that the retaliation factor is overplayed, usually.

Other points of principle are that people have literally died so that we have the right to express ourselves freely, and besides, there's enough sneakiness in the world. So why not tell that world what you think, loud and clear? And of course, we have to think about precedents and treating everyone the same.

All in all, we've become highly skeptical of use of false names. But maybe too much so.

Last week, a person sent in a letter extolling a political candidate.  It wasn't an inflammatory letter, or one that you'd expect to trigger anger or retaliation.

We'll call her "Lotus Cloudweaver." That's not the actual false name she used, but it's similar.

I asked if that was her real name, and she said no. She did include her phone number and offered to tell us her real name privately.

I asked her why she would use a false name for such an innocuous letter, and she said that she had been a victim of domestic violence. She was concerned that if she used her real name, the person who had attacked her would find her and commit more violence against her and her family.

She said she was in the process of changing her name, but when I asked if she had filed the petition, she said she was in the process of doing so, had the paperwork and was saving up the fee.

Name changes are costly – the county's fee schedule lists a name change petition as $435. Then there's the $40 it takes (at the Union, which I think is the cheapest) to publish it as legally required. That's no small sum.

Ms. Cloudweaver made a fair case for anonymity, and as we started constructing the pages, we were still somewhat open to using her letter.

Here's the decision matrix:

Publish the letter

Good: Empowers a reader, adds a voice to the election mix, exposes readers to another point of view, lets a domestic violence victim express herself without fear of retaliation.

Bad: Sets a precedent allowing anonymous letters, isn't fair to others who have either signed their real name to a letter or not submitted one because of the attribution requirement.

Withhold the letter

Good: Consistent with established attribution standards, fair to other letter writers, didn't have to cram more text in and make the other letters harder to read.

Bad: Extends disenfranchisement of domestic violence victim, further victimizing her.

It happens that this past week, the last week before the section, we had an abundance of candidate advocacy letters, plus columns by all the Northern Humboldt Union High School District and McKinleyville Community Services District candidates.

Even with doubling our usual number of Opinion pages from two to four, holding some of the regular columnists and moving ads to other pages, we had to do major crammage. I shrunk the type to 9.5 points from the usual 10 and tightened the leading, plus kerned a bunch of sentences that had orphaned words on the next line.

And voila! Everything fit perfectly using all signed letters and columns. So the decision kind of made itself.

Could we have jammed Ms. Cloudweaver's letter in somehow? Yes. Probably by cutting the type size on all the letters down to nine points, which makes it hard for seniors to read, or holding something else. But the piece not fitting in without extraordinary measures helped tip the balance against it.

By way of further background, we also have long, tedious experience with what might be termed "professional victims." That is, people who endlessly cast themselves as being oppressed by the government, the community, the media and/or various conspiracies. A lot of the time, their purported plight could easily be resolved by suspending the whining and self-pity for a few minutes. I could name some, and you would recognize their names... but I won't.

The point is, the habitual whiners make it harder for people who genuinely are victims, possibly like Ms. Cloudweaver (I haven't verified her domestic violence case, but I don't have any reason to doubt it).

Lastly, note also that sticking to a policy just because we've always done it that way is an appeal to tradition, a logical fallacy. Maintaining a policy just because other newspapers do would be another  logical fallacy – the argument from popularity.

What we have arrived at at this point is that if we get her real name and talk to her, which we haven't done yet, we may just go ahead and add her letter to the online mix, which is getting a lot of readership.

So there it is. Is making an exception to the attribution standard the right thing to do for domestic violence victims? Are there others who might merit a similar exemption? Or is maintaining attribution standards the right way to go?

 

 

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10 Comments

  1. Fred Mangels said:

    I’ve written a number of letters to newspapers and had a few published in some larger ones like the L.A. Times and S.F. Chronicle. The bigger papers always called. The smaller ones, usually, but sometimes not.

    I wouldn’t expect them to always call if the letter is pretty much non- controversial or provocative. Sometimes they let ones through that I’m not sure they should publish regardless of who wrote them.

    Anyone recall the one sent to the Times- Standard a few years ago supposedly by someone who worked at a dental office, or something along that line? She really ragged on the dental office, writing in third(?) person, saying “we” don’t really care about the patients and all. Really tore down that office.

    Turned out it was sent in under a false name and they never tried to verify writer’s identity. I don’t know that I would have published that even had the author been genuine.

    But you’re right. Verification methods aren’t perfect, but they generally serve their purpose.

  2. Fred Mangels said:

    Nicely thought out and I agree. I’ll also agree with Eric Kirk and MOLA’s comments.

    I’m quite skeptical of excuses made for anonymity. I’ve been blogging- often provocatively- since 2005 and I’ve never received anything close to a threat. Insulted, sure, but no threats.

  3. SolarBozo said:

    “Anonymous letters are little more than vandalism.”

  4. Vee Savage said:

    This is odd to me. My legal name is odd, potentially questionable as to whether it’s a pseudonym or not. But I have been published in several local (San Francisco area) newspapers before and have never been questioned about my name or asked to provide ID. It seems you are extremely critical and suspicious of everyone. I guess it comes with the territory of being a journalist. You see a lot and know all the tricks. But I think it’s an absolute shame we cannot take things at face value and publish them under the name submitted (I can see trying to verify a celebrity, politician or other public figure, so something potentially damaging is not attributed to them) otherwise let people express themselves with them name they are comfortable with.

    How are you to know that someone will not be retaliated against or discriminated against in their job, community, neighborhood, or even their family if they express their feelings openly? It doesn’t matter to me one bit whether “Lotus Wildflower” or “Mary Smith” wrote this letter as I don’t know either of them! But maybe Ms. Smith’s boss would care if she was speaking out against a candidate he personally knows and endorses..

  5. Brenda Bishop said:

    Jack and Kevin, As Executive Director of Humboldt Domestic Violence Services I praise the survivor who contacted you and who felt comfortable enough to share her/his story with you. Many survivors are haunted, followed and harassed, some even killed decades after having the courage and strength to leave their abuser. Anonymity is vital to survivors. Starting over, starting a new life as a survivor is quite challenging and comes with a whole new set of new fears and anxieties. As a fellow journalist I encourage you to consider this letter, especially since it does not threaten or is viewed as the disrespectful letters you receive by false writers. This is an opportunity for your newspaper. This person, this survivor has been honest with you – that much more than you can say about the false AND legitimate writers and letters you get every day.

  6. MOLA:42 said:

    Agree, there is a good argument for reasonable and sensitive editorial staff to use their judgement on a case by case basis. Perhaps instead of the author’s name there would be a brief statement something like, “Name Withheld due to extenuating circumstances, Author’s true identity has been checked by us.”

    Or something a bit more artful.

  7. bookchaser said:

    I’m fine with a victim of domestic violence being anonymous, so long as you have the victim’s consent to verify that status (through HDVS, Emma Center, court documents, etc.). Sure it’s work, but how often does this situation arise? It sounds like your first time.

    Whereas, if you are taking a person’s word on why they should be anonymous, you may find yourself with a rash of people claiming your approved reasons for being anonymous.

    Honestly though, the woman probably could have signed a realistically-sounding name, and answered the phone to that name, and you’d have been none the wiser.

    The minimal layer of verification that newspapers provide is nonetheless an important layer of distinction between journalism organizations and bloggers.

  8. Lauraine Leblanc said:

    Just to clarify about the requirement to legally publish a name change: I believe that under California law, a survivor of domestic violence can apply for a sealed name change, which waives the requirement to publish the order to show cause for the name change. http://www.courts.ca.gov/documents/nc400info.pdf

  9. Eric V. Kirk said:

    I would advocate for an exception where the writer is acting in good faith – not attacking someone and has a reasonable basis for anonymity – and has a reasonable explanation for anonymity. Editor discretion as to the overall justice of it.

  10. j patton said:

    it seems, from my extremely naive perspective, that perhaps one could publish a letter anonymously if that publisher had determined the real name and that it was written by a real person (like in this example). in this way, the letter is not really anonymous, just the publication of the letter…?

    this seems similar to the publication of articles that are quoted as being from eg “senior white house official.”??

    of course, placing it online makes it available for everyone who has anonymous diqus accounts to comment all they like. 😉

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