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Blogging and the cloak of anonymity

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I’ve been closely following the blog posts here and here by my colleague Alesha Jackson regarding problems at an unnamed middle school and the dozens of comments that they have inspired. The blogs and comments are by far most read items on our new site, with over 2000 “hits.” The first post, the one that started the avalanche, included most of the text of an open letter to the principal that had been signed by 42 teachers and sent to Alesha, who promptly posted it, along with her praise to the teachers for coming forward. She called the teachers courageous for confronting the school’s problems rather than staying silent about them, as happened at a school where she worked in Harlem years ago.

Alesha knew which school it was, but we at the Notebook decided to keep the identity of the school secret. Her post was generalized – about what to do about a school where the climate seemed to be spiraling out of control.

In starting our blog, the Notebook, like most news organizations, allows people to comment without disclosing their identities. The option has unleashed a flood of comments, mostly from anonymous teachers, that we might not have heard otherwise. And one reaction we’re getting is that we’ve created a space for an important, while sometimes heated, discussion about a school in crisis.

Still, as a journalist, the discussion also makes me uncomfortable. Mainly, that’s because so far, we have only one side of the story. And even though the school is not named, someone who wants to can probably figure out which it is.

This exchange has made me think about the role of blogs in the brave new world of journalism.

As an education writer for the Inquirer for more than 20 years, I certainly heard my share of stories from teachers complaining about what was wrong in their school. Many of these stories I pursued. Many I did not. Some I pursued and chose not to write about.

I have no intention here to question anything at all about the validity of the concerns raised by the teachers at this school. Obviously, they are real. But what threshold should be crossed before they are brought, unfiltered, to public attention? In other words, what are the standards for verification? And, in the blogosphere, is there still a place for the role that the traditional journalist has historically played? By that I mean the professional, trained in fact-gathering and analysis, who follows commonly accepted standards for fairness, verification, completeness and – as a goal, at least – objectivity.

So, in the old, traditional journalistic method, before blogs, we’d try to get access to the school to see for ourselves (although that is always tricky). We’d try to talk to as many people as possible. We’d certainly talk to the principal, or at least make the effort, and to his/her superiors, the people “in the know” downtown to try to get a read.

But first and foremost, we’d never print anonymous complaints. Occasionally, we would run a quote that didn’t have a name attached in a story in which other people were named, but overall, if people weren’t willing to put their name to charges, we wouldn’t print them.

Often, in stories like this, as we did more reporting, the issues would turn out to be more complicated than they first appeared. Sometimes, there would be a story, but not exactly what the original source envisioned. We would use our best judgment and skill to sort out what was really going on, judge its newsworthiness, and write it as fairly and plainly as possible.

We didn’t always succeed at this, but the basic principles – fairness, completeness, verification, accuracy and – yes – objectivity, are sound. We tried by using these tools, in our flawed, human way, to get as close to the “truth” as we could.

So, what has the advent of blogging done to the standards of newsgathering? I’m wondering whether lively, but largely anonymous discussions like this are valuable and worthwhile. Take a close look and let us know. Is this a good way to get at the truth? What do you think?

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Dale Mezzacappa

@dalemezz
Dale is a contributing editor at the Notebook. She has reported on education since 1986, most of that time with The Philadelphia Inquirer.

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