Adventures in Ethics and Science

I’m following up on my earlier post in the wake of the outing of dKos blogger Armando. At Majikthise, Lindsay Beyerstein had posted an interesting discussion of the issues around pseudonymous blogging, and whether it might sometimes be ethical to reveal the secret identity of a pseudonymous blogger. She raises lots of interesting issues about whether blogging is properly regarded as a species of journalism, and how the ethics of blogging might be related to the journalistic ethics of the “old media”. As well, Armando turns up in the comments to disagree with Lindsay’s analysis of the issues.

My read is that the disagreement between Armando and Lindsay arises from a conflation of a number of distinct questions:

  1. Are bloggers journalists, or are they something else?
  2. If bloggers are not journalists, what are their ethical obligations (e.g., to their readers)? Do they have a duty to disclose potential conflicts of interest?
  3. Do journalists have a duty to protect the secret identity of a blogger who wishes to blog pseudonymously?
  4. Does a blogger who wishes to blog pseudonymously have a right to have his or her secret identity protected (by journalists, bloggers, and others)?

There seem to be some important theoretical details to work out here, such as whether bloggers are journalists, and whether the ethics of blogging are different from traditional journalistic ethics. As well, though, there are important questions about what sorts of policies are prudent for a blogger who wishes to blog pseudonymously — regardless of the ethical obligations relevant others might have in the situation.

What’s ethical?

The big disagreement between Armando and Lindsay seems to be over whether it was ethical for the media outlet that revealed Armando’s true identity to have done so. Was Armando’s true identity newsworthy? Even if journalists had access to the relevant facts of Armado’s true identity, did they have an obligation not to report on them? Lindsay argues that there are instances in which the identity of a pseudonymous blogger may be a matter of legitimate public interest upon which journalists should be free to report.

In rare cases, the identity of a pseudonymous blogger is a legitimately newsworthy topic in its own right. For example, I think it was perfectly legitimate for bloggers to point out that the Washington Post’s erstwhile conservative blogger Ben Domenench had written some incredibly offensive stuff under the handle “Augustine.” I’m sorry that Armando of Kos got outed, but there was a real story there: Wal-Mart lawyer front pager at major liberal blog.

What makes the blogger’s identity newsworthy? Is it their level of notoreity? The fact that certain details of their blogging (e.g., being highly critical of the policies of George W. Bush) seem to be in conflict with certain details about their three-dimensional activities (e.g., being George W. Bush)? There may not be a bright line here; if there is, Lindsay and Armando disagree about where exactly it is, which I suspect means there would likely also be some journalistic disagreement about its location.

One might make an argument that it is always ethical to out a pseudonymous blogger because his or her readers have a right to know his or her true identity in order to be aware of the biases in his or her blog posts. To this way of thinking, the ethical blogger would have to out his or herself.

I disagree. The readers of a pseudonymous blog are responsible for knowing that they are unable to assess the biases of the blogger. The blogger could be anyone — someone sharing honest observations, or someone bent on manipulating readers by all manner of dishonest means. That, sometimes, is the price of protecting privacy — the privacy you’re protecting can undercut your credibility. The burden is on the readers to be critical consumers of information.

Are bloggers journalists? Some of them are pretty close, and as such they should take themselves to be bound by journalistic ethics. If they feel that old-school journalistic ethics don’t really work for blogging, blogger-citizen-journalists need to be involved in working out a code of ethics that does the job, and then in persuading other journalist bloggers to adopt this code.

But some bloggers clearly are not journalists. What they’re doing is not reporting news but … keeping a journal. Do you have an ethical obligation not to lie in your diary about what you had for breakfast on Saturday or whether you enjoyed it? Maybe — but if you fall down on this ethical obligation, it’s not going to create obvious harms for anyone else.

What’s prudent?

It would be lovely if everyone lived up to his or her ethical obligations all the time. It would also be lovely if drivers actually stopped at the stop sign on my street (do not get me started on this); however, quite regularly they do not. There is a substantial gap between “ought” and “is”. Thus, rather than trusting all the outcomes to people doing what they ought, we have to work out prudent ways to act that will minimize the damage when others fall down on the job.

Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that you’re blogging under a pseudonym, that there is no relevant conflict of interest as far as what you’re blogging about and who you are in real life, that there is no other legitimate public interest in who you really are, and that you would prefer to keep your real identity and your blogging identity from being publicly connected. While journalists may have an ethical duty not to out you, it is possible that some might not recognize it (say, because they have a different view of what is newsworthy). Others, frankly, might not be so ethical — and even if they are wrong to out you, once your secret is revealed the damage cannot be undone. And, to complicate matters, you might be outed by someone who is not (or does not consider himself or herself to be) a journalist.

It seems to me that, to the extent that keeping your two identities separate is of value to you, you ought to take steps to keep them separate. As I commented on Lindsay’s post,

If one is committed to blogging under a pseudonym and not being outed, one has to be committed to REALLY keeping it a secret — no panels, no bios, no webpages, no comments on other blogs, NOTHING where your real identity and your blogging identity are connected.

In other words, rather than leaving all sorts of traces that connect pseudonymous-blogger you with real-life you and assuming people will be ethical enough not to act on them, you do everything you can not to leave the traces. You don’t mention your location, your educational history, your specific area of employment, your age, etc., etc., on your blog. You don’t mention your blogging on your resumé, your employer’s webpage, your public appearances, your Christmas letter, your conference name tag, your answering machine message, etc., etc.

People and corporations claiming copyrights (and tradermarks too, if I remember correctly) have to go after every infringement — even seemingly little ones — else it could be claimed that they’re not really serious about protecting their rights. In some ways, keeping your secret identity secret requires the same kind of vigor. If you’re leaving breadcrumbs that connect your pseudonymous blogging identity to your real life identity, maybe you’re not really serious about keeping the two unlinked. Indeed, given enough breadcrumbs, a reasonable person might conclude that you want your secret identity to be revealed (although, for whatever reason, you want someone other than yourself to reveal it). Otherwise, why would you leave so many clues in plain sight?

A journalist might have an ethical obligation, even in the presence of a lot of breadcrumbs, not to out you. Conceivably, though, a journalist might have a different view about whether your identity is newsworthy, and you might not be able to persuade that journalist to leave your secret alone. But plotting a prudent course here also involves recognizing that people who are not bound by journalistic ethics can find the breadcrumbs, too.

Say a webpage is created that links my true identity as Janet D. Stemwedel, assistant professor of philosophy, with my blog identity as Dr. Free-Ride. Maybe I make this link myself (because it’s an obscure webpage that I figure maybe ten other people will look at, ever). Once it’s made, the information is out there, just waiting for someone to find it. Googling someone is not the ethical equivalent of going through his or her trash; to my mind, it’s more like looking in his or her living room window as you walk by. Maybe it would be better not to look in that living room window to witness what’s going on inside, but the curtains are open! Maybe it would be nicer not to report what you saw going on in that living room to your housemates, but they asked you how your walk was — and the curtains were open!

Just because a pseudonymous blogger would prefer that the public not go satisfying its curiosity about his true identity doesn’t impose an ethical obligation on the public not to examine the clues that are out there. Even if it did, the clues are out there, the public is curious, and people don’t always live up to their ethical obligations. Counting on people suddenly to live up to their ethical obligations (and here, arguably, non-journalists might not even have the obligation not to disclose here) seems like a recipe for disappointment.

Comments

  1. #1 coturnix
    June 19, 2006

    Do you remember the Deignan affair?

  2. #2 sciencewoman
    June 19, 2006

    I’m not sure you’ve made a convincing case that journalists ever have an ethical obligation not to “out” bloggers.

  3. #3 Zeno
    June 19, 2006

    My blog is semi-pseudonymous. Some of my most regular readers are friends and colleagues who know who I am. On the other hand, it would be difficult to write some of my posts under my own name because I discuss matters that come up at school: my irascible colleague with his one-size-fits-all syllabus, the failing student who thought she would do better by boycotting class, the good student who was horrified when I asked an exam question that was insufficiently modeled on any earlier problem. Students are entitled to privacy, even when I am employing their words or examples to illustrate some of the issues that arise in the classroom. Colleagues don’t need me to identify them by name either. Anonymous blogging provides an extra layer of insulation and seems prudent. I doubt matters of journalism arise in my case, especially for a tiny blog like mine.

    Hmm. I wonder if my dean is reading my stuff.

  4. #4 Janet D. Stemwedel
    June 19, 2006

    Sciencewoman, you’re quite right that I didn’t offer a positive argument that there exist circumstances in which journalists have an obligation not to reveal the identity of a pseudonymous blogger. I’m assuming such circumstances probably exist, and that “old school” journalistic ethics probably even identifies some such circumstances pretty unambiguously (say, when a pseudononymous blogger is also a source for your story whose identity you have an obligation to protect). And it seems clear, as well, that gratuitously revealing someone’s identity can be a fairly rotten thing to do even in cases where you don’t have an overriding obligation to protect it.

    In the comments Armando made to Lindsay, he asserted that the default in journalistic ethics is not to reveal personal details. One assumes this means you should only reveal personal details (about a journalist or a blogger) if there is a compelling journalistic reason to do so. However, not being a journalist myself, I’m pretty much taking his word for it.

  5. #5 Armando
    June 19, 2006

    From the Socity of Professional Journalists:

    “Minimize Harm

    Ethical journalists treat sources, subjects and colleagues as human beings deserving of respect.

    Journalists should:

    . . . * Recognize that private people have a greater right to control information about themselves than do public officials and others who seek power, influence or attention. Only an overriding public need can justify intrusion into anyone’s privacy.”

  6. #6 Kenny Easwaran
    June 19, 2006

    I suppose the relevant question here then is whether bloggers count as “others who seek power, influence or attention.” Certainly Kos himself seems to seek power, influence, and attention, as probably Brian Leiter and other headline names on major blogs. Whether others writing on the same site do as well is less clear.

  7. #7 Armando
    June 20, 2006

    Kenny:

    You misread this sentence – “Only an overriding public need can justify intrusion into anyone’s privacy.”

    The need is easier to show when there is a public fgure involved but it still must be shown.

  8. #8 Lab Lemming
    June 20, 2006

    I think that a journalist and the public have an ethical obligation not to out a blogger if doing so has an reasonable chance of causing harm. The Chinese journalist who went to jail after Yahoo outed him is an obvious example.

  9. #9 Corkscrew
    June 20, 2006

    People and corporations claiming copyrights (and tradermarks too, if I remember correctly) have to go after every infringement — even seemingly little ones — else it could be claimed that they’re not really serious about protecting their rights.

    I believe that this is only true of trademarks, not copyright. With trademarks, lack of enforcement can easily lead to your mark becoming generic. There was a big kerfuffle recently with Linus Torvalds asserting trademark rights over Linux in Australia to avoid this happening.

    There are similar provisions for patents, although they were only “invented” in the courtroom fairly recently. The doctrine is called “prosecution laches” – basically, it acts as a provision against the worst abuses of submarine patents. Google for Symbol/Cognex vs. Lemelson for more info.

    I’m not actually aware of any similar provisions for copyright. Since copyright is only enforceable on works that are actually copied from another source (if someone comes up with the same content independently then copyright doesn’t apply), I’d guess that the burden is on the copier to be aware of the copyright status of the content, and thus the problem of submarine enforcement doesn’t apply. Please correct me if I’m wrong here.

    Disclaimer: IANAL. Please take with the requisite bushel of salt.

  10. #10 alphabitch
    June 20, 2006

    Like Zeno, my blog is semi-pseudonymous. I would not be harmed in any way if it were known that I have a blog; I don’t say much of anything at all about my workplace, but I do talk freely about my politics, my (lack of) religious faith, and occasionally even sex. But given that I am employed as a content writer & editor, and the name of a major religious denomination appears somewhere on my paycheck, I’d prefer not to have my blog writing be the first thing people find when they enter my name on a search engine. I don’t, however, regard anything I post on my blog as invisible to someone who is looking for it.

    Because people google people all the time. I strongly disagree that googling someone is the equivalent of going through their trash — it’s not even that much like looking through the living room window. In my profession, anyway, it’s more like looking them up in the phone book or something. Or checking out their references and employment/publication history.

  11. #11 G Bitch
    September 8, 2006

    Like Zeno and alphabitch, I am not completely unknown or anonymous (locally) but I do have reason not to be directly identified with my blog persona and blog, like needing a day job for the rest of my life. Seriously, though, at some point looking up a blogger’s identity crosses the line from phone-book-searching to stalking. If you are simply curious who the person is, you have no reason to broadcast that information without the blogger’s consent. I may know what kind of underwear you have on but do I need to tell? Or research that brand of panties? And tell your mama I think you bought them at Frederick’s of Hollywood becasue of a Google search? If there is a severe conflict of interest, and I haven’t read the whole controversy behind Armando’s outing, it could be newsworthy. But I don’t think that is always the case. And there is no reason to set ONE rule for all circumstances. That’s lazy.

    Journalists not only have to keep their ethics but keep their sources. If you have a good source, why ruin it by pissing him/her off? What kind of journalist worth her typing fingers is going to blow up a line of information? Unless there’s good reason to?

    No, there is no true anonymity. Duh. At the same tiime, if I know you had an embarrassing nickname in 1st grade, I am not compelled by honesty or any other abstraction to loudly and frequently broadcast that name. No real harm is done. It is, though, disrespectful and uncalled-for.

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