An interesting skirmish broke out this weekend
on the issue of whether anonymous comments online are good or bad for the platform.
Their defender was interesting: Matthew Ingram of GigaOm
, recently the communities editor of The Globe and Mail. He was largely fending off attacks from Howard Owens of The Batavian
, the former digital chief for the Gatehouse Media group, and others.
Ingram's view, shared by some in the comments, is that permitting anonymity opens the discussion to people who would otherwise not feel free to be frank. Overall he feels that it encourages a better debate.
Owens thinks that people need to stand and be counted and too bad if they don't feel like doing so. He thinks people online have a right to know who is saying what about them.
Of course, that's a simplification of their amplification.
Mostly the craft sides with Owens. It believes the public needs to know who is saying what, that the value of transparency often means some comments do not get published, and that there is an abiding interest in ensuring all criticism is attributed to permit the accused to know who are the accusers.
But anyone can tell you these days that the hard-earned privilege of comment has been discounted online as organizations permit people to create pseudonyms to wage their arguments. News companies often feature two sets of standards for their newspapers and Web sites and are in a quandary on how to contend with the thousands of comments penned without a sense of who said what.
The principles of transparency, accountability, fairness, accuracy and minimizing harm always seemed to me the most important elements of the craft. Not one of them is helped by anonymity, except in an unusual circumstance --- the whistleblower, or the person who justifiably fears retribution for challenging someone or an institution.
Unquestionably journalism has to be open to that person, but the privilege should be conferred and not inferred. Even in permitting the challenge, journalism need not furnish a pedestal for anonymous criticism --- and certainly need not give everyone else that permission when they have less significant matters to discuss.
It is interesting to me that, in an era of rampant sharing of information and less privacy than ever, we'd be arguing for the right to shout loudly while wearing a mask.