The shifting role of journalists in the new media is the background for Bill Reader to study the attitudes of journalists and readers towards anonymity in online forums. Particularly, in traditional feedback forums, journalists, based on their own preference, chose some readers’ feedback to publish; while in online forums, readers can post comments by themselves, and read feedback from other audience. More importantly, anonymity has become prevalent in most of the online forums, which caused debates between journalists and readers about the effects of anonymity on the society.
Reader first briefly summarized previous studies in journalism that expressed antianonymity attitudes. Further, Reader extracted three major themes from these studies that ban of anonymity can: avoid libel, improve quality of the comments, and protect democracy. However, Reader argued that the antianoymity is a “professional bias” within the journalism field, because “’anonymity’ itself is ethically neutral” (p. 497). Then, Reader investigated other research that examined the potential benefits of anonymity, such as encouraging online participation, and expressing different views from the mainstream opinions.
Reader introduced the concept of “concordance” from Condit to guide his research, where concordance can be defined as “the suggestion that hegemony in the modern world is not simply top-down from the dominant power structure, but is constructed via accommodation by the most recognized opposing sides in various debates” (p. 499). Under this theoretical framework, Reader decided to explore the attitudes of journalists and readers separately, and then analyze the different attitudes together. By using text analysis method, Reader examined six high-profile journalistic essays about anonymity in online forums, and 927 comments of these essays.
First, Reader found that journalists showed a negative attitude towards anonymity in general. More specifically, it can be revealed from the essays that journalists described anonymous comments as filth by using some strong words. Furthermore, they tended to dehumanize the anonymous writers as the enemies to express their hostility, since they believed that their beautiful “virtual village square” was destroyed by those anonymous writers. Interestingly, Reader also found the six journalists ignored the potential benefits of anonymity, and the possible reason could be that the professional success of those journalists was based on their identifications attached with their opinions.
Second, Reader showed that most readers supported anonymity in online forums due to the following reasons: anonymity encourages readers’ participation by allowing them comment or even critique others, especially the ones with powers; anonymity protects writers from harassment due to their comments, albeit such harassment seldom happened; anonymity also ensures the free speech.
Finally, Reader tried to analyze the proanonymity from readers and antianonymity from journalists as a whole by investigating the definition of “civility” in a pluralistic society (p.506). He then suggested that we should treat libertarianism and social responsibility as balancing influences rather than dichotomy.
I found the most interesting part in this article is Reader’s discussions on “civility”, which make me think about the social norms of online behaviors. Similar to Reader’s definition of civility, I am wondering what the social norms of online activity is, and more importantly, how it has been created, and are there any interactions between the journalists and the readers. Another question keeps popping up in my mind is that whether anonymity can really protect readers from being identified, or readers just need a feeling of being safe? Because some technologies (such as IP address?) might be used to identify the individual comment writers, even though the forum is claimed to allow anonymity.