I'm Going on the Record When It Comes to Anonymous Bloggers

Transparency Lets Us Know Who Has an Axe to Grind

By Published on .

What concerns me most about some of the ad blogs that have been in the news these days is that their anonymity can lead to real troublemaking -- as can anonymous sources in the general press.

The problem is that most anonymous sources have a axes to grind, and it's always our job not to allow any grinding in our pages.

A while ago, I wrote a column about the convoluted way The New York Times goes about explaining why a news source was "granted" anonymity (one irate reader said "granted" sounds like "dispensation from the pope"). I said the Times could get back some space it lost in downsizing by cutting back the tortured explanations of why some sources are anonymous.

My feeling is that readers have more of a capacity to figure it out than the Times gives them credit for. Readers grasped that no amount of explaining about the sources in that John McCain lobbyist story could have legitimized what the sources purportedly said. In other words, if your sources aren't good, you ain't got a story.

It's my feeling that the most important thing is giving readers an indication of what bias sources might have. We go by these rules: It's never acceptable to allow a completely anonymous source to disparage anyone or any company specifically. And reporters should try, whenever possible, to indicate the person's general job description and their relationship to the news event. So when one anonymous agency guy says uncomplimentary things about another agency, we always identify the source of the comments as coming from a "rival agency executive." Readers can then evaluate what the guy said knowing about his obvious bias. But still, the guy might have pointed out some useful information. That's why we decided to quote him under cover of anonymity.

The point is that we do everything we can to filter out bias. The same can't be said for the ad blogs, because we don't know, in some cases, who is writing them.

How do we know, for instance, that when a blogger attacks the setbacks at a particular agency, it's not being written by someone from a competing shop? Or when bloggers use anonymous sources, how do we know that their sources don't have stakes in the game?

When bloggers make comments about the state of the industry or why Clinton won Texas and Ohio or whether a baseball team improved itself in the offseason, that's fair game. The blogger's opinion is as valid as anyone else's, and it doesn't really matter if we know precisely who's blogging.

But what if an ad blogger's comments disparage the management style of an agency executive, and the blog is written by a rival agency person who is angling for the disparaged guy's job?

Shouldn't the blogger identify himself or herself so we at least know where the blogger is coming from and the blogger's credentials?

Here's a question I put to our editor, Jonah Bloom: Would we allow an anonymous person to blog on our website? Jonah says we have six different blogs at AdAge.com, and none of them is anonymous.

That said, he contends that there's occasionally a place for anonymous sources and blogs "in a business so patrolled by the PR police. I like to think -- perhaps naively -- that you can trust people to know the difference between unfiltered gossip and properly sourced information."

Jonah added that we offer people the chance to comment on news stories without their names and companies showing, but we moderate those comments carefully and post them only if we know that they come from legitimate sources.

How about Bob Garfield's blog, "Comcast Must Die"? Jonah says lately a couple of anonymous bloggers have aimed "some pretty vitriolic smears at him and started a campaign to get him ousted."

It won't work, Anonymous Bloggers. "Generally, we see that as inevitable," Jonah says. "We listen to it where it might be constructive and try to just laugh it off where it's clearly just nasty or mindless."
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