April 26, 2008

Dueling Identities: Ethics of web names

It started at the ripe old age of five. I wanted a secret identity that would allow me to basically do whatever it is people did while wearing a cowl and colorful cape. I got the same urge to adopt a secret ID years later in the post-Google search index era --- when suddenly anything you've ever done is now networked and somewhat easily searched.

Press friendly and digital beacon
If you want to be a serious professional on the web, then you've got quite a bit of slack regarding the main audience, which is solely on the Internet. If you want to be a professional in any other medium and still write on the web, readers in the community could realistically misconstrue anything you do, thus pulling a “FOX News Fair and Balanced” and/or “We report, you decide.” What I mean by that is, from that point forward you'd be know as either a conservative darling or a raunchy godless liberal.* If you'd like to do both then you'll have to do something like use a cyber-pen name, Web name, alias, or any other synonym you can think of to make it sound as normal and non-super-heroish as possible.

I would say the need for such a dual identity will become less important as people adapt to new technology and such. Some, such as David Cohn, who I wrote about previously, have taken an “open book” approach to the web. He's been very successful. I've even had the opportunity to write a few articles on his sites. So it would be completely unfair (and wrong) to say it can't be done and done well.

But, I'm a small time reporter, so most of my audience still connects to a print edition or...not at all. Ultimately, it's a decision you'll have to decide for yourself. If you do use an alternate pen name to write more freely whenever you're off the clock, I've come up with a few short rules:

1) The give and take: It is acceptable** to omit mention of your actual name as it appears in unintentionally slanted news publications when you are writing under a web pen name. I wouldn't say it's necessary to mention it anywhere on the site itself either. BUT: (this is a very big but) you should never deny that you write under this assumed name under any circumstances...

2) Promote transparency whenever possible. It's always the best policy. In fact, mention that you write on the Internet about subjects completely unrelated to your regular beat. I'd suggest even pointing people in the right direction to those other sites. Don't hide it, but at the same time you don't have an obligation to be obvious about it (as long as you follow the next rule...)

3) Don't use your secret identity to advance what you REALLY think about the story you just wrote in a completely fair and unbiased way for your regular news publication. If you are a follower of journalistic ethics and integrity, then you should have done that when you wrote it the first time --- or dismissed it all together. One story. Report it the way you believe without slanting it. If it merits a second story, write another.

4) Keep it clean (or relatively.) Passion is not always relative to the number of four lettered F-bombs in a fiery blog post or column. I tend to look at Superman as the best metaphor for this rule. Superman does not exercise his freedom of potty mouth speech, ever. Not just in front of children or city officials. He does not curse. You need to uphold the integrity of what you are talking about. Treat your second name as if it was your only name.***

Side Note:
It could also be said that The Batman would probably not follow any of these rules. I agree but would like to point out that The Batman would never blog, twitter, comment, digg, reddit, Mixx, shout or any other form of social media expression what-so-ever. I mean, come on, he's The %!^&@# Batman.


* Terms are interchangeable between political parties and also broadcasting news stations.
** Most would prefer no omission of your actual name. "acceptable" is my own opinion
***Chuck Klosterman rarely says the "F" word more than once in a column.


Grammar Nazi said...

Well said. You have some great insights here.

kate said...

Wandered here from NIT - like your style. Of course, anyone who likes Klosterman and Batman has to be okay in my book.

Ginny said...

You make some good points. I definitely worried about my Web identity when I was a newspaper reporter. I worried that blogging/writing outside my role as newspaper reporter could harm my reputation/credibility with sources on my beat who may Google me and find something that hinted at my political beliefs/ personal values. I think this will become less of an issue for reporters, as you suggested, once they catch on to this whole World Wide Web thing.