Anonymity of sources and writers is generally shunned in journalism, and this sentiment is reflected in the bylaws of The Michigan Daily. A debate about this issue arose in light of the Daily’s decision to grant anonymity to the writer of a cover story in The Statement about fake IDs (Faking 21: How bouncers catch fake IDs and underage students get past the rope, 9/05/2011).
Readers raised concerns about the need and wisdom of granting anonymity to the writer in this case. To broaden my own perspective, I also solicited the thoughts of three former Daily editors (who hailed from three different sections of the Daily). Finally, I sat down for a discussion about the story and the decisions that went into it with its writer and the two editors most responsible for it: Statement Editor Carolyn Klarecki and Daily Editor in Chief Stephanie Steinberg.
(Because the Daily’s decision to grant anonymity is final, this column refers to the writer as a generic “he.” This should not be taken as an indication of the writer’s actual gender.)
The main concerns raised were about the credibility a newspaper loses by not having a name attached to each story. Was the story so weak or questionable that the writer can’t stand by it? Shouldn’t the Daily make all writers own up to the shots they take? Did the Daily facilitate illegality by protecting the name of a writer who broke laws? And if so, was the final product worth all that?
Having read the story closely several times, I find it rather harmless — in two important ways.
First, I don’t believe the writer abused the anonymity granted to say things he otherwise wouldn’t. In fact, for the most challenging parts of writing this story — attempting to dupe bouncers at bars and explaining his misdeeds to perturbed bar owners and managers — the writer actually did reveal himself. The writer took the significant step of exposing himself to that hostile group to write a story that was clearly not easy. The journalism here, despite its other flaws, was anything but lazy.
Second, however, I remain unconvinced that the story accomplished anything significant. In my discussion with the writer and editors responsible, they could not explain the story’s purpose or even assess the end product on anything other than a primary, facial level. I was told that not everything in a college newspaper, and certainly not everything in a magazine like The Statement, should be an advocacy piece that pushes an agenda.
While I agree with that sentiment, I must stress my disagreement with the decision to take the substantial step of granting anonymity to a writer for a story that apparently wasn’t even intentioned to make a solid point.
It’s undeniable that an anonymous story is a strain on the Daily’s credibility: It’s natural for people to be more suspicious of something said anonymously as compared to something with a name attached to it. Without a writer standing by the words that are written, the entire weight of any flaws the story may have falls on the Daily itself. This is a weight the Daily willingly bears in the case of unsigned editorials, which are the opinion of the paper as a whole.
But the Daily, like any institution, has only a limited supply of credibility capital, and it should be expended judiciously. There will be rare occasions when a costly dip into that reserve will be necessary. But it’s crucial to separate situations of such necessity from the less pressing situations where anonymity is a mere tool of convenience. I believe the Statement story at issue falls into the latter category.
When asked if the story could have been written with a byline, the writer and editors responsible concluded that it could not. Citing the law-breaking the writer engaged in, the editors stated that including a name would doom the writer in many unfair ways. Every time a prospective employer searched the name on the Internet, this story would come up — and it would be hard to explain the merits of the story to an interviewer, especially someone outside the field of journalism.
While I sympathize with that dilemma, I conclude that it is not a mandatory one. The focus should be on how to write the story in the first place, rather than on whether to risk a byline on the story as written.
The story could have been written through observation and interaction, using all ethnographic tools needed — short of the writer’s own participation in illegal activity — to create authenticity. And if that were done, there would be no need for anonymity. While there would be some loss of experiential proximity in this alternative approach, I found nothing that the first-person perspective added to this story that would be so worth retaining.
Though the story was a diligent exercise in journalistic legwork, it avoided all engagement with any of the several abstract debates it stumbled upon. Why do bars return fake IDs to students? Why do bars known to be more lenient to underage drinkers continue to escape reprimand? And most importantly, what do underage drinking laws really mean in a college town where all sides concede and generally accept that the laws are constantly broken?
It’s perfectly fine to say, as the writer and editors did to me, that the purpose of some stories will simply be to start a conversation — as opposed to exposing wrongdoing or advocating an agenda. But the question then becomes whether such stories that make no bold argument warrant the protection of anonymity. Given the costs such protection involves for this paper as an institution, I believe that they do not.
The public editor is an independent critic of the Daily, and neither the editorial board nor the editor in chief exercise control over the contents of his columns. The opinions expressed do not necessarily constitute the opinion of the Daily. Imran Syed can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.