Friday, March 26, 2010

Plain Dealer IDs Anonymous Poster on Website

The Plain Dealer's Editorial headquarters in D...Image via Wikipedia
Academics, media ethicists and others are weighing in on the firestorm created by Ohio's largest newspaper, the Advance Publications-owned Cleveland Plain Dealer, when it identified a blogger whose anonymous posts on included one that questioned the mental stability of a Plain Dealer reporter's relative.

A comment by "lawmiss" on the paper's Web site concerning the mental state of a relative of reporter James Ewinger was removed as violating the site's policy against personal attacks. Editors investigated and discovered "lawmiss" shared an Email address with Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Judge Shirley Strickland Saffold, and noted that a handful of "lawmiss" posts commented on cases heard by Judge Saffold.

Judge Saffold denied sending the posts, but her daughter, Sydney Saffold, admitted to authoring at least a handful of the roughly 80 "lawmiss" comments found on the site. Journalism ethicist Bob Steele of the Poynter Institute criticized the Plain Dealer's conduct, noting that neither any threat of danger to anyone nor any inkling of judicial misconduct were in evidence to warrant uncloaking the anonymous blogger. Online privacy advocate the Electronic Frontier Foundation also took the media outlet to task for the "chilling effect on conversation" the revelation of  "lawmiss" might have.

On the other hand, Editor & Publisher commentator Shawn Moynihan backed the newspaper's action, saying the public's right to know trumped the right of "lawmiss" to hurl anonymous brickbats. The Plain Dealer defended itself by arguing the newsworthiness of someone using the Email address of a sitting judge to comment on issues of public concern.

"TUOL" sides with the Poynter Institute on this one. The First Amendment free speech/free press provision protects anonymous speech. Secondarily, "TUOL" is all for crusading newspapers, but gets a bit uncomfortable when the precipitating action that gets the newspaper's dander up is an attack on "one of its own." That's not what the old rubric about comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable is all about.

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