People often send us unsigned letters and emails, wanting us to investigate transgressions they think the community should know about. When these writers go to great lengths to conceal their identities, as they sometimes do, I start to worry.
Sometimes these messages are signed, but with an emphatic proviso that they are not for publication and that the writer’s name must not be revealed.
I try to explain to these correspondents that, with rare exceptions, we don’t pay much attention to anonymous messages or to requests from people who are not willing to identify themselves in public. The reason is quite simple: readers can’t properly judge the value and reliability of information unless they know its source. Neither can we.
It’s not that we want to avoid subjects that may upset and even enrage people. But to be worthy of readers’ trust, we must scrupulously follow the established rules of ethical reporting, including naming one’s sources and revealing potential conflicts of interest and biased motives.
Sometimes, of course, a source has a legitimate reason to ask that her name not be revealed — if, for example, she is reporting wrongdoing by her employer and might reasonably be a target of retaliation. Even then, editors must be wary, and any accusation must be confirmed by multiple independent sources before an unnamed person may be quoted in print.
I have written about the anonymity problem before. In September 2020, I called out Christopher Muther of the Boston Globe for relying on anonymous sources in an article about “vacation vigilantes” and resentment between the Cape’s year-rounders and second-home owners. What concerned me then, and still does, is how easy it is to create a dramatic story based on name-calling without looking into the underlying truths. All that Globe story did was amplify the words of the internet hotheads.
In April 2021, I quoted from an Atlantic article about the “internet kleptocracy that profits from disinformation, polarization, and rage” and how it was destroying our fundamental democratic values. “The voices of the angriest, most emotional, most divisive — and often the most duplicitous — participants are amplified,” Anne Applebaum and Peter Pomerantsev wrote.
It’s the duplicitousness that gets me. As Lori Rutter writes in her letter to the editor this week, recent town elections in Wellfleet have generated a spate of name-calling on social media. The targets of these attacks may be guilty of various sins, including the violations of civil discourse that at least one candidate has been accused of. But at least we know who they are. It’s the people who throw daggers from behind a screen who scare me.
A proper debate about matters of true public interest requires two things: first, adherence to some basic rules of civility and engagement, and second, a willingness to stand up in front of your neighbors, tell us your name, and state your case. It requires that we trust each other not to descend into verbal or physical violence because we disagree.