by Bill Reader, Associate Professor
According to the Society of Professional Journalists’ code of ethics, journalists are supposed to “give voice to the voiceless.” But a recent trend in the journalism business has been to refuse to give voice to the nameless.
The kerfuffle is over the online forums provided by news media in which readers can comment on articles and opinion pieces, often anonymously or using pseudonyms. Some highly respected journalists, frustrated and disgusted with some of the nasty, hurtful, and just plain whacky missives from some anonymous posters, have called for a ban to anonymous comments.
I recently argued in American Journalism Review that such a ban would violate the principles of free expression in the First Amendment. I also believe, based on the findings of several research projects, that such a ban also would have a chilling effect on the participation in such public discourse by many demographic groups, most notably women, racial and ethnic minorities, the old, the young, and the poor.
But I think the greatest negative impact of such bans would be not at major national media, but within community journalism. Because the audiences served by community journalism tend to be somewhat homogeneous in terms of culture, and also relatively small in size, there are considerable deterrents for people to express minority opinions or legitimate criticisms of local power structures.
I grew up in such a community, in which there were only about four organizations that employed most of the local residents — a major health care center, a pharmaceutical plant, an engine-parts plant, and the local public schools. Very little criticism of those organizations were found in signed letters to the editor, and those with the most knowledge about the problems in those organizations — the employees — were often silenced for fear of losing their jobs or being harassed in the workplace.
One of the local newspapers started an anonymous call-in forum in the 1980s, and suddenly the dirty laundry of those large employers began to see the light of day. The forum certainly had its crackpots and often had a few downright nasty comments, but for the most part the forum provided an important way for people to publicly expose and discuss such issues as inequitable pay, unreported labor and code violations, sweetheart deals and cronyism, safety issues, etc.
It is often said that a benefit of living in a small community is that everybody knows everybody, and that can be a true blessing for many aspects of community life. But the downside is that such a community can deter dissent, criticism, whistle-blowing, and other crucial aspects of free societies.
In an age when people can be harassed in their homes or punished in their workplaces for expressing unpopular but valid opinions, anonymous comment forums are needed more than ever. Granted, there will be some abuse in the forums, but the greater abuse would be to shut down such forums entirely and remove from the community a useful forum for democratic action.