Online Identity — and Newspaper Ethics

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By: David S. Hirschman

Ted Vaden, public editor of The News & Observer in Raleigh, N.C., recently noted the complaints of local residents who were surprised to find that comments they had posted in a Yahoo neighborhood chat room had been quoted by a reporter in the paper. The Fox Run, N.C., residents had used their own names in complaining about a nearby nightclub that they claimed was a disturbance, and the journalist had quoted three of them in a story about the issue.

A diligent reporter should have called the writers for original quotes (or at least contacted them to fact-check), but their protests to the newspaper are ultimately baseless. They had expressed their thoughts in a forum that was far more public even than the newspaper in which they were quoted. Once they pressed “send,” their comments were fair game.

The Internet is the antithesis of privacy, and by now everyone should know that. Every post on every site that isn’t password protected (or otherwise restricted) constitutes part of an endlessly available, researchable database that can be accessed in the mountains of Bhutan as easily as in your bedroom. And because of the archival nature of the Web, pretty much anything you’ve ever written online (or which has been written about you) will likely remain there forever.

This means everything you post under your name is always on-the-record; it belongs to you forever and can be repeated and retransmitted, and quoted (and misquoted) as though you had spoken it through a megaphone in the middle of Times Square.

In quoting people’s comments on the web, however, journalists should naturally be skeptical. Because most people do not always want to be on-the-record online, pseudonyms and other false identities are a natural part of the Web experience. They don’t want their ex-husband to know that they’ve been pining for him through Google searches. They don’t want marketers to know their personal information simply because they were checking out merchandise on a retail site. And they want to be able to communicate with others anonymously, and gather information anonymously. And the solution is simple: just make stuff up.

An online newspaper’s registration page asks for demographic information. “Sure, I’m a Pacific Islander who makes over $100,000 a year and subscribes to over 20 different magazines, mostly hunting and fishing titles.” You have to receive thirty newsletters about topics you’re probably not interested in to access our content. “That’s cool, just send them to my email: DrNobody3913@gmail.com.”

And it’s not just in registration; often it’s just for kicks. Signs everywhere in our culture encourage us to step outside of ourselves, to live in video-game realities and construct elaborate fantasy lives; nowhere is this easier than on the Internet.

Take, for instance, the News Corp.-owned social networking site MySpace.com. Millions around the world have created a virtual library of their own preferences and personality characteristics, but a good number of them are clearly not real, or are deeply skewed versions of reality. The site offers you a bevy of options by which to categorize yourself, but what easier way is there to step out of your confining identity than by clicking the box to the left or to the right of what might be “most” honest. The creative nature of the medium encourages construction of an alter ego, a different version of yourself with different preferences, perhaps an “optimized” version. A ?you? that is not responsible for, or dragged down by, the everyday reality you inhabit.

And how about online dating profiles? What percentage of those can be taken at face value?

Should the writers of these semi-real fictions (most not clearly marked as such) then be responsible for their content? Perhaps we can legally charge them with hate speech or inciting violence, but, if they’re simply making stuff up, where is the crime? In a medium so opposed to (and abusive of) personal privacy, playing with reality — or bending the truth, lying — is a natural way to express ideas that you may not want associated with your name on every Google search until the end of time.

This raises a fascinating question, beyond the debate over whether old or snarky comments on the Web can be grabbed by journalists as on-the-record quotes: How do reporters who do that know that what the person posted was even close to being true? At the minimum, the poster needs to be contacted for confirmation — and when they complain about being quoted or identified, what does the possibly conflicted journo do then?


***

This brings us to the case of Michael Hiltzik, the L. A. Times columnist who recently lost his “Golden State” blog after it became apparent that he had been posting comments on his own and other blogs under pseudonyms. The paper said in a editors’ note that Hiltzik’s blog had been suspended because he has violated The Times’s ethical guidelines, which “require editors and reporters to identify themselves when dealing with the public.”

In posting to his own blog under a fake name, Hiltzik was clearly abusing the trust the paper had placed in him, and the Times has a right to protect the reputation that its brand depends on. But writing praise about yourself in pseudonym-ed comments is like a sitcom using a laugh-track; pretty lame, but not ultimately harmful. It just implies that Hiltzik isn’t confident enough in his own writing to let it speak for itself (surprising for a Pulitzer-winning journalist).

But even if he himself hadn’t written the fake comments, he could as easily have gotten a friend to write similar comments under a fake name, thus sidestepping the writer-dealing-with-the-public problem. Whose “crime” would it be then?

In posting to the other blogs — outside his L.A. Times home — under false names, Hiltzik’s “crime” is even less damning. Surely Hiltzik wasn’t the only person posting to these blogs under fake names. And in posting these false comments, was Hiltzik acting on behalf of the paper or simply acting as a citizen of the Internet whose right it is to engage in this kind of anonymous discourse?

I doubt that Hiltzik would be bound by the Times’ ethical guidelines for content in an online dating profile. Does his association with the paper automatically disallow him from fully participating in this not-totally-real aspect of the Internet? If so, then he’s likely a poorer blogger for it.

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