The Cyberbrains

Research and contemplation in new media

The name game agonizes journalists

Missouri journalists and politicos are name-calling this week. Well, actually it’s an argument about the lack of names.

Clyde Bentley

The Springfield-News Leader took umbrage over the common blog practice of posting comments sans byline.

“… Too much of the conversation going on in the “blogosphere” is anonymous, and we want to do our part to put an end to that,” the paper opined in an unsigned editorial.

The paper was particularly irritated by a Democrat-sponsored blog on which some writers use pseudonyms such as “Demcat” or “Sherlock.”

Now pundits in the state are arguing whether the anonymity of pseudonyms increases political dialog or demeans the public forum.

My virtual stomach has been in knots about this since I ran an editorial page in the 1970s. Until now, I’ve come down on the side of traditional “full disclosure.” I’ve changed my mind … sort of.

My personal ban on pen names was more journalistic tradition that logic. It was what I learned in J-school, despite the fact that some of the most famous commentaries in our culture were published anonymously. Hamilton, Madison and Jay wrote the Federalist Papers as “Publius” and Charles Dickens started as “Boz.”

The argument that swayed me was not political, however, but financial. Several (usually anonymous) comments have noted that pen names allow citizens to comment on public life without reflecting on their employers – a career-shortening practice.

Point well taken. The University of Missouri System is looking for a new president. Like many faculty, I harbor a few politically incorrect opinions about the past president and the need for a new one. But even tenure wouldn’t protect me from subtle retribution if I loudly blasted the big boss.

So the new Bentleyism: Use a pen name when it allows open discussion. But don’t trade social propriety for techie trendiness.
Some blogging software makes it easier to sign with a login name than a real name, but that seems a bit antisocial when you are writing about your grandkids or the stamp collecting. Justification for pseudonyms should have substance,

We currently require real names in bylines at MyMissourian. That is, in no small part, a reflection of our affiliation with a traditional newspaper. The policy may change when we get new software. But what won’t change is the principle of social propriety that guides our particular publication. We find that more than 90 percent of our commentary “problem” is handled by our only submission rules:

    • No obscenity
    • No nudity
    • No personal attacks
    • No attacks on race, religion, national origin, ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation.

      But they are our rules, not yours. We also live by the real Prime Directive of the Web: If you don’t like it, click to something else.

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      May 23, 2007 - Posted by | Clyde Bentley

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