Every now and again I get a request to provide information to an individual who writes for a mainstream media print outlet. Sometimes ones that are focused on the scientific enterprise, sometimes ones that have a regional focus and sometimes the larger, more general national news organizations. The latest one was from Sharon Begley of Newsweek .
The typical request includes some stroking "I'm a big fan of your blog" (yeah, you and the spam commenters, bucko) and a request for a voice interview on some topic of interest that is obviously related to my blogging.
So far, so good.
Even if I do not really understand the fetish with the voice interview over the email exchange. (Oh, ok, yes I do*.)
Then, with various degrees of clumsiness, they work around to the question of my real identity and how they would like to cite that real identity in their article.
Of course, I refuse.
Now, here is what fascinates me. Actually, first I need a little disclaimer. It is possible that I have lingering irritation with the current journalist because of an article she wrote about the NIH funding system. It is the usual wah-wah about how the NIH refused to fund the lone genius who turned out later to be RightAllAlong, therefore the SystemIsBroken. Aiiiieeeee. I was going to blog it but I see I never did. Ah well.
Anyway, back to the task at hand. See if you can follow the MSM journalist's logic.
They allegedly read the blogging of DrugMonkey, find it informative and interesting to the point where they wish his input on a story they are writing. Input that they would like to use as whatever they think of* as a direct attributed quote.
In the absence of direct quoting or attributing they are happy to use the input of DrugMonkey in creating the eventual story. On background.
The alleged reason for not naming a pseudonymous source in the article, is that they "owe it to the readers" to tell them whose opinion is coloring the story.
I find this fascinating. First, because there is by now a rather large body of opinion written by DrugMonkey on various topics. These may be easily located from just about anywhere one can find an uncensored Internet connection. These writings are far more informative about "who" I am than my real world name could possibly be. My real world self does not have any specific role opinionating for MSM type audiences. At best, I would hope that some narrow subset of my research articles reach an audience beyond the narrow scientific field at which they are directed. Those are rather dry scientific communications, however, and convey very little about "who" I am when it comes to opinionating on topics of interest to the consumers of MSM. So why would citing my real self be somehow better than my pseudonym? It actually conveys less information to the reader. In a sense.
The second implication is a bit nastier for the journalists. The claim is that the journalist "owes" transparency of sources to the reader. I can tentatively sympathize with this goal. However, the journalist is full willing to interview a source who does not want to be identified in print and to incorporate that information either overtly or unconsciously into the resulting article. In such a case, the source of the slant or opinion expressed as the journalist's own take on the issue is entirely opaque! The journalist does not reveal how many sources she or he consulted, which primary literature or random websites were reviewed or anything like that in the article. That is all 'background'. And yet this background, and the resulting slant, can have a much greater effect on the reader than do direct quotes*.
In the substance abuse fields, probably the largest category of potential conflict of interest with respect to opining in news media is the category of therapy for drug addiction. Whether we are talking proprietary rehabilitation schemas, computer assisted partial replacements for old fashioned talk therapy or drugs to be approved by the national regulatory bodies, this is where we start to touch on traditional areas of conflict of interest in which it is very obviously in the interest of the reader to know "who" is talking. Is the person's loyalty more to the accurate depiction of the scientific support? Or is the source looking to enhance the stock value of a company for whom the source consults?
In my case, I like to use the general disclaimer of "assume that I am conflicted to the hilt" because I do not fear any decrement in the impact of what I have to say. I have no need to establish my bona fides in that way. I deduce that MSM journalists would not prefer to use this standard and in fact like to pretend they are giving balance by including competing biases in the story quotes. Or, at the least, interviewing people with opposed opinions. And overall to compartmentalize and minimize any implication that the source even has a bias.
The fact is, however, this balance is not readily apparent to the readers. The reader has to trust that the journalist is not expressing a biased viewpoint that has been heavily influenced by one of his or her "not for attribution" sources. The reader has to trust that the journalist has vetted the source for conflict. Because the resulting article provides no clues whatsoever as to the identity, viewpoint or potential biases of the source.
When considered in this light, citing an pseudonymous blogger with an extensive track record seems to serve the journalist's readers a heck of a lot better than off-the-record background interviewing.
*The practice of journalism is, from what I can discern, interested solely in cherry picking and quote mining to support the pre-existing story instead of conveying an accurate representation of a source's position. Once you understand this, many of their bizarre practices become more intelligible.[Related: Coturnix on The Ethics of the Quote]