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?