Lyons: Fear and loathing in anonymity

Most columnists are comfortable going after public officials – calling out their shortcomings and misdeeds in pieces ranging from epic prose to shrill screeds.

But in dozens of conversations, particularly in recent years, a new problem has arisen that is worthy of this screed. I’ll crank the shrillness down to seven.

The problem for journalists is sources, usually regular people, who have very little to reasonably fear but refuse to be identified because the issue they raise might upset someone.

Anonymous sources always will be part of journalism. Sometimes sources have very good reasons to seek anonymity – victims of sexual assault or whistleblowers, people who had vital information but would lose their livelihoods or even lives in foreign countries for speaking out.

The Northwest Herald, like all legitimate news agencies, has its own policy on anonymous sources in our editorial principles:

“We will seek to disclose to readers the name of the source of all information we gather for publication. Such transparency is important to lend credibility to sources. When we agree to withhold the name, a source will not be made known to anyone outside Shaw Suburban Media.

“Before information is accepted for publication without full attribution, we must make every reasonable effort to get the source on the record. If that is not possible, we will seek the information from another source whom we can identify publicly. If we do withhold the name from publication, we will ask for an on-the-record reason for concealing the identity and will include that reason in the story ...”

We’ve encountered countless examples of sources seeking anonymity for lesser reasons. I’m hesitant to detail them since it’s not my purpose to shame individuals who never asked to be in the spotlight. But it’s becoming a borderline epidemic.

In some instances, it’s fine. We won’t print your name just for talking to us. Point us to the problem. If there are documents or other sources available, we’ll get the story. But when the people most directly affected by the issue are afraid to use their names, the story loses a lot of impact if it doesn’t die altogether.

Explanations range from fear of irritating some village president or giving the police chief a case of the grumpies. Those explanations are confusing for journalists who do those things for a living.

This isn’t Damascus or Riyadh. What could happen? You might get a frosty reception at the Chamber mixer?

What’s concerning is that they often seem like normal people – decent people who just don’t want to make waves. We hear plenty from the screamers. But aren’t these decent folks the kind we should be listening to?

While there will always be cold feet from those not used to the public eye, I attribute some of this anonymity hysteria to the ability to post one’s thoughts, arguments, rants or misguided notions in many places on the Internet without identifying oneself.

How freeing to be able to air gripes without fear of retribution. Writers know better than anyone how cathartic a keyboard can be.

However, random Internet complaints from anonymous people are seldom taken seriously in the world of public affairs.

They might be useful for a discussion among the dozen or more people on that particular site discussing that particular story, but they don’t move the needle anywhere else.

Anonymous Internet complaints are little more than flotsam and jetsam –  cyber fish turds in a cyber ocean.

Catharsis is one thing. But if you really want to change anything besides the direction of a comment thread, at some point you’re going to have to stand up for yourself and others.

People. Real people who have the will to speak and point out issues in their communites are the ones who affect change. They have to stand up in a visible way.

And sometimes that means putting your face where your screen name is.

• Kevin Lyons is news editor of the Northwest Herald. Reach him at 815-526-4505 or email him at Follow him on Twitter at @KevinLyonsNWH. 

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