Who's talking, and does it matter?

Posted on May 10, 2010 by Janet Coats

What if we all knew who was doing the talking?

Would that change the tone of our conversations? Would it change what we’re talking about?

As the mother of teenagers, I can pretty much assure you that the answer to those two questions is a definite yes.

In the traditional journalism landscape, there’s not been much that frustrates journalists more than anonymous comments on news sites. As a newsroom leader, I had more people show up in my office to talk about this issue than any other during the last couple of years.

Reporters complained that the ugliness of anonymous comments chilled their ability to get people to talk to them because they didn’t want to be subject to commenter name-calling. Instead of providing light, they argued, comments are all about heat. Reporters challenged why the industry accepted the practice of anonymous commenting while most local editors set the bar high for when reporters could quote people in stories without revealing their identities.

All this time, I thought only traditional journalists felt this frustration. But after listening to new media journalists at the Reynolds Journalism Institute and The Poynter Institute in the last couple of weeks, I’ve been educated. The frustrations are familiar for many new media journalists focused on building true communities through their work.

The issue, really, isn’t anonymity. It is civility, and it is credibility. It is hard to have a civil conversation, and one in which other participants can evaluate whether the speaker really knows what he’s talking about, if you don’t know who anybody is.

In the last decade, the Web has been a world that valued anonymity. It didn’t start out that way. The Internet began as a way for scientists to share information. In that world, communicating under your true identity was vital to your credibility.

As we move into the Facebook age, it appears that the value of anonymity online is proving to be the aberration, not the norm. The social world is returning us to an age in which authenticity – being yourself in all interactions, virtual and real – is becoming the coin of the realm.

After all, the social world is built on the idea of passing along your preferences – in music, in videos, in jokes, in games and in news – to your friends. That exchange is built on trust – and you can only trust someone if you know something about who they are.

So what does this mean for the evolution of journalism?

Authenticity promotes accountability. Journalism that engages communities in authentic, accountable conversations can lead to the kind of action that solves problems – or at least promotes understanding of them.

That’s the kind of journalism the most journalists – both from traditional and news media sites – want to enable.

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