Pseudonymity and Ethics
posted by Laura Heymann
Last week, the Los Angeles Times suspended the blog of Michael Hiltzik, one of its columnists, when he admitted posting comments both on his blog (which was hosted by the paper) and on other blogs under pseudonyms. Apparently these efforts were a ham-handed attempt at creating an ego chamber by suggesting that there were other participants who agreed with Hiltzik’s views. The L.A. Times has posted a notice at Hiltzik’s blog, stating that Hiltzik’s actions were “a violation of The Times [sic] ethics guidelines, which requires editors and reporters to identify themselves when dealing with the public.”
Put to the side for the moment what Hiltzik actually did, which, if nothing else, was not a bright career move (and serves as yet another reminder to the public of the existence of IP addresses). What if Hiltzik had used a pseudonym to comment on another blog merely to engage in a discussion without revealing that he was a columnist for the L.A. Times? What if the resulting discussion then became interesting enough that Hiltzik or another reporter decided to write about the debate? Is there something improper or unethical about the fact that the hypothetical Hiltzik did not disclose his identity in the course of the discussion? Assume, even, that Hiltzik engaged in pseudonymous commentary precisely to spark a discussion on a given topic — which is, of course, what many blog authors do on a daily basis — to see if it would develop into any interesting column fodder. Would he have acted unethically? Given that the participants responding to such comments are engaging with a pseudonymous individual in an open forum in any event, does it matter whether that individual is the hypothetical Hiltzik or a CPA in Schenectady? Or whether the individual is a reporter for the L.A. Times rather than the author of AcmeBlog?
Presumably the L.A. Times does not enforce its policy to the extent of requiring its reporters to “identify themselves when dealing with the public” when they are, say, participating in an online dating service or ordering a burger at the local fast food joint. I would imagine that the point of the policy is to protect members of the public who would unwittingly say something in a conversation with a nonreporter that they would not say if they knew the comment could potentially be published in the paper. But when the hypothetical (i.e., nonlogrolling) Hiltzik comments pseudonymously on another’s blog and encourages comments that are intended for public consumption from the moment the “post” button is hit, is he “dealing with the public” in the way that the paper’s policy contemplates?
(To be clear: I am in no way defending Hiltzik’s actions. But I am curious about where the line between proper and improper is in a medium in which pseudonymity is not only accepted but often encouraged.)