Opinion Columns & Blogs

Scott Lebar: Why we name names, with exceptions

The story about Pascale Fusshoeller, a Web editor from the Sierra foothills who’s undocumented, had all the fuses to set off anonymous commenters gone wild.

Immigration officials released her last week after she had been taken into custody, accused of a traffic infraction, as well as false impersonation. Police say that she had claimed, after she rolled through a stop sign, to be her wife, a U.S. citizen.

Immigration. Gay marriage. They are two of the issues sacbee.com commenters usually pounce on. And at the top of this sacbee.com story was the label “0 comments.” At the bottom was our notification that we had turned off commenting temporarily as we figure out a way to improve the discourse in what has become one of the strangely gnarly problems facing news sites.

This was a follow-up story by Stephen Magagnini, whose original piece had generated hundreds of predictable responses. “As with most of my undocumented immigrant stories, the comments were weighted to ‘go back where you came from, you broke the law’ perspective,” Magagnini said. As a reporter, he has no problem with the news offering avenues of discussion. He feels, like many reporters and editors here, they should not be able to do so anonymously. We approach news this way: Think it, say it, own it.

And that was one of the main points of contention – the value or detriment of anonymity – in an online chat we offered readers last week, too. This forum, which is still open ( Commenting Upgrades), gives readers a chance to air their feelings about commenting. Here, a variety of readers debated in a way that was both engaging (showing the value of community discourse) and, to put it charitably, churlishly (showing why we want to come up with a better way). After an hour, we had several versions of Otis, one of our regulars. One’s enough. And, later, someone claiming to be another Scott. Again, as many of the commenters I bet would agree, one’s enough.

Some of our regulars, who seem to cherish the opportunity to roll with the trolls under the guise of assorted monikers, asserted the need for safety in proffering unpopular opinion, unfettered by identification. Freedom in their minds. Lack of accountability in ours. Or, on the flip side, censorship from their point of view. Responsibility, ours.

Sometimes they say something that gives us pause.

Take Observer, for example. He/she – obviously, we can’t tell – and others challenged our consistency in dealing with anonymity, noting that while we are aiming for it in comments, we are loose in other parts of our enterprise.

We quote anonymous sources in news stories, and the real Scott (this one) responded that using anonymity isn’t something we take lightly, that our default position is: Get real names and real people to talk on the record. “Scott, NOT TRUE, regarding using anonymous sources for stories sparingly. Maybe go back and read all the articles about arena deal? Be honest here,” Observer wrote.

OK. Let’s focus on anonymity, then. It is at the core of the matter here, as we try raise the level of conversation by requiring people to take off digital masks.

Yes, we do use anonymity sometimes, and have a very specific policy to deal with issues that arise. And using this quote from our chat happens to violate our anonymous sources policy. We don’t use anonymous sources unless we know who they are. Observer, or any of our other commenters with, admittedly, some comically entertaining names – Sociopathic, jazzrack, Lexx Luthor – would have to be identified to us to be a part of a story.

Our policy starts this way:

“At The Bee, anonymous sources should be the exception and not the routine. Anonymous sources will be allowed only when the value of the story and the benefits of the information to our readership clearly outweigh the potential for skepticism and erosion of credibility that arises with use of such sources. The managing editor or executive editor must clear the use of any anonymous source in Sacramento Bee copy before it is published.”

The policy gives the newsroom guidelines we follow rigorously. They cover a range of circumstances, from when we use them competitively to provide significant news (“that there is absolutely no other way to obtain the information”) to protecting certain victims (“potential for putting the victim at further risk”).

The referenced coverage of the Kings and the arena stories over the past year did involve anonymous sourcing, but we followed our policy. All were identified internally, all deemed as significant sources of information, all cleared by the managing editor or executive editor. Would we have preferred they be on the record? Absolutely.

The policy extends to all departments. Matt Barrows, our 49ers writer, copes with locked-down information and must clear anonymous sources even on the most mundane stories, with “league sources” confirming, say, a signing or release of a player. He doesn’t want to run that route but does to get the information, which, he said in an email, “is harder and harder to get in an increasingly paranoid and hypersensitive league run by the world’s biggest control freaks.”

On the other hand, cops reporter Kim Minugh recently was cleared to use anonymous sources in her story about Ascend, an alternative sentencing program. Minugh knows the drill, though – we strive to identify. And she did; she found participants willing to use their names. If she hadn’t, we would have explained why, as is our practice.

For Barrows, Minugh, Magagnini and other reporters here, the world of anonymous commenting has often been a mystery because it contradicted our practices in so many other ways. Commenting is relatively new – maybe not in Internet jacked-up time – and has evolved. We’ve had comments at sacbee.com for less than a decade. Since then, it has grown – last month we had 50,000 comments posted by about 4,000 people. And the concerns have, too. For amusement, check out the anti-comment Twitter feed @AvoidComments, with 28,000 followers.

Our goal is to come up with a system to eliminate anonymity, elevate discussion, bolster your confidence in the debate on our site, to help assure you it won’t devolve into base name-calling and nastiness. So when you look at that label saying how many have commented, you can sense some safety in numbers.