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The Ombudsman The Tech Brushes with Anonymity; More Care Needed

John A. Hawkinson

Anonymity can be a powerful tool and a double-edged sword. Paradoxically, anonymity both allows the truth to get out where it otherwise might not and also risks the propagation of untruths, because there is no fear of retribution.

Anonymous rape piece - was it true?

The arts department ran “What a Difference a Year Makes: An Account of One Woman’s Rape and Assault at MIT” [Feb. 24], by “Anonymous.” I thought it was a very powerful piece that sent a strong message -- a message possibly tempered by its anonymity.

In journalism, there are some expectations about anonymity. The identity of the anonymous person is known to someone at the newspaper, and the paper has confidence that the anonymously attributed facts are true.

The New York Times and The Washington Post have both recently revised their guidelines for anonymity, and it’s instructive to look at them. The Times’ is available at http://www.nytco.com/sources. It says, in part, “Whenever anonymity is granted, it should be the subject of energetic negotiation to arrive at phrasing that will tell the reader as much as possible about the placement and motivation of the source -- in particular, whether the source has firsthand knowledge of the facts.”

Last week, I asked Arts Editor (and last term’s editor in chief) Christine R. Fry about the rape piece. I was pretty shocked to find out that she didn’t know who the author was; she had obtained the piece through the producers of The Vagina Monologues. How are we supposed to know that the story is true? If it’s not true, then the strength of the message is radically diminished.

I queried Fry on why she didn’t know the author’s identity, and she said, “I should have asked.” Initially she expressed a concern that asking for the identity might cause the piece to be withdrawn. That’s not a reason not to ask. It might be a reason not to press as hard if the answer is “No” and there’s independent confirmation available.

In the intervening week, though, Fry has made up for it. Fry now says, “I know who it is ... I am completely certain it is true.”

No single editor should be responsible for maintaining the paper’s credibility on anonymity issues. As part of the production process, all copy is reviewed by both a section editor and the editor in chief (at a minimum). I asked Editor in Chief Brian Loux, and he told me he assumed Fry had known the identity of the author. That’s not good enough. Everyone needs to ask the right questions and cannot assume that all the ducks are in a row. People make mistakes.

A piece like this should be accompanied by an editor’s note explaining its origin, and should give the reader some reason to trust that it is true, such as an assertion about independent fact-checking that was performed.

Inside coverage boxes

I strongly agree with Mariana Recalde ’05’s letter published on Friday. The rape piece really should have been mentioned on the front page. But this is a larger issue: The Tech really needs to give prominent coverage to more than three items (or two plus comics) on the bottom of the front page, as I wrote in my Jan. 21 column.

Recently, I happened to notice that The Tech did a much better job of this prior to its 1998 redesign. From at least 1978 through 1998, the inside coverage box was free- form and allowed for an arbitrary number of items.

The Tech should do something to improve the situation. It comes up over and over again. Feb. 20’s issue buried a page 15 story on MIT losing a Nobel laureate Institute Professor -- was a front page reference to Dilbert really more important?

Features anonymity disappears

The Tech’s features department has made great strides in eliminating unjustified anonymity lately. The editorial staff for new volume (which started in February) appears to be much more concerned with the dangers of anonymity. News and Features Director Beckett W. Sterner and Features Editor Akshay Patil asked the columnists if they’d be willing to be identified, and it seems most are going along with it.

Two weeks ago today, on Feb. 10, the previously anonymous “Sex and the Saferide” columns appeared with bylines, crediting Alex Nelson and Danchai Mekadenaumporn for their work. How many of you noticed?

Of course, they have appeared on the masthead as “features columnists” since Nov. 25, 2003. That’s really hokey. If columnists really and truly are anonymous, their anonymity should have the full support of the paper.

The comics section has also moved to stricter attribution, with “TRIO” credited to Emezie “Emie” Okorafor ’03 (misspelled in every issue since Friday the 13th), “Brian Loux’s comic” credited to Brian Loux (Brian Loux is the editor in chief of the paper; this is weird), and “Filler Space” credited to Jason Burns. This attribution started with the second issue of term, on Feb. 6.

Weak news section lately

The past two Tuesday issues have featured only two news stories each. That’s not very much at all. A good issue should have upwards of four.

To pick one item, what’s the deal with coverage of MIT’s presidential search? Yes, there were two articles on Feb. 20, but no real solid information. According to an article in Saturday’s New York Times [“Grasso Refuses to Return Any of $139.5 Million Pay” by Landon Thomas, Jr.], the interim chairman of the New York Stock Exchange, John S. Reed ’61, is being considered for MIT President “according to several members of the search committee.” Where is The Tech?

It was also disappointing that the graduate student health insurance announcement didn’t make Friday’s Tech. It was pretty important, and the news broke on Wednesday, so there should have been plenty of time.

The Tech’s Ombudsman welcomes your feedback, to ombudsman@the-tech.mit.edu. His opinions are his own.