Anonymity should be a rarity in news stories

CNN this week said it was safety concerns that led to its decision to withhold the identity of the man behind a doctored anti-CNN video shared last week by President Donald Trump.

The video, originally posted by an unidentified man on Reddit, a social media web site, showed an old WWE wrestling match of Trump “roughing up” a pro wrestling promoter, with the CNN logo superimposed over his face. Trump last week tweeted a link to the outrageous video, and it has become the president’s most-shared social media post, according to Twitter.

CNN apparently used its investigative prowess to figure out who posted the original video. That man allegedly followed up with a public apology posted under his user name, called it a prank, said he was just trying to get a reaction and was closing his Reddit account.

CNN said it decided not to publish the user’s name because he is a private citizen who apologized, showed remorse and said he would not repeat the behavior, but reserved the right to publish his identity should any of that change, a CNN reporter wrote.

That last sentence triggered a new firestorm of debate, including one from conservative activist Ben Shapiro, who called it “essentially blackmail,” in case the guy “dares to defy their (CNN’s) political perspective or offends them sufficiently.”

I figured this latest debate presented an opportunity for me to explain when and why the Tribune Chronicle ever withholds names from a news story.

Frankly, I believe using anonymous sources shakes the credibility and news value of stories. If a source wants to go on the record, we should identify him or her.

But in reality, I know that’s not always possible, so here are some examples of when we might run a story without a name.

We do avoid identifying victims of sexual assault when covering crime, even though there is nothing that legally prohibits the release or publication of a victim’s name.

However, if a sexual assault victim files a civil suit against an alleged attacker, then the victim becomes a plaintiff and will, generally, be identified in our coverage. We view civil suits and criminal cases differently, largely because in a civil suit, the plaintiff has brought the action by his or her own volition.

In most other criminal cases, we do publish names of the victims as well as charged or arrested defendants. I often receive criticisms for these decisions, but we believe strongly that it’s our job and responsibility to share information, not to withhold it. However, if it’s likely that the identity of victim of a random criminal act is not known by the assailant and if releasing that victim’s name might cause further harm, we would likely not name the victim.

When juveniles are charged with serious crimes that we believe warrant a report to the public, then it’s also our job to tell the public who they are. The public’s right to know about serious crime, we believe, far outweighs a defendant’s right to privacy, even if it’s a juvenile.

It should also be noted that any member of the public also can gain access to this information, because it’s all on public documents.

When we interview a source providing tips for a story, our reporters and editors often are asked to avoid using that source’s name. This is a request we honor very judiciously and make it clear whether we will be able to honor the request for anonymity before we publish their information or quotes.

We also sometimes get requests from the public to keep their names out of things like court listings, property transfers or police blotter. These requests are not honored because, again, it’s our job to inform, not to withhold information.

The media exists to provide a service to the public. We take our responsibility to inform very seriously and make anonymity a rarity.