The publication of anonymous reader comments by newspapers is unethical and should be discontinued, except in rare and unusual circumstances.
The Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics emphasizes that journalists should:
• Seek truth and report it
• Minimize harm
• Be fair and accurate
• Be accountable
• Show good taste
However, it also says journalists should:
• Support open exchange of views, but should not misrepresent the facts
• Give voice to the voiceless
• Encourage the public to voice grievances
So, how can newspapers manage all that – be fair and accountable and support open exchange? They have been doing that for many years.
They have managed with features called “letters to the editor” and the “op-ed” page. Those features do not permit anonymity, except in rare occasions, and even then require that writers’ identity be known to the editors before articles are published.
Now, with the internet and online editions of newspapers, anyone with access to a computer can comment anonymously. Oversight is minimal. Newspapers would have to increase staff to authenticate each online submission, as is done with letters to the editor and op-ed articles. That will not happen, especially in these times of deep newspaper staff cutbacks.
The result has been a storm of anonymous comments – some of them quite nasty – in online newspapers. Rather than give voice to the voiceless, this practice in fact both provides venue and protection to unethical voices. It is unfair, is often inaccurate, harmful, in poor taste, and is not accountable.
Granted, those reader comments are not “journalistic” efforts but they are published by journalists who not only lend credibility to the irresponsible but also shield them from accountability. Newspapers cannot ignore the unethical aspects of anonymous reader comments.
The “voiceless” are not voiceless. There are many online avenues for them to air their opinions anonymously if they choose to do so. Newspapers should not be among those avenues. Doing so is irresponsible and not ethical.
Paul R. LaRocque, member, SPJ Ethics Committee
This comment is my personal opinion and not necessarily that of the Ethics Committee.