The Salt Lake Tribune outed an anonymous commenter as Art Raymond, a spokesperson for Salt Lake City’s mayor Ralph Becker. Because of the story, Raymond was put on paid leave as the city investigates the matter.
Raymond told the Tribune that he commented personally without anyone else knowing or asking, not professionally, on his breaks from work. Helen Langan, director of communications for the mayor, confirmed to iMediaEthics by phone, “we did not know that our employee was doing this.”
In all, the newspaper said it found “six posts on five articles where Raymond supported Becker or disparaged his campaign opponents, and in which the posts were sent during business hours from a city IP address.”
The Tribune posted on Scribd a list of all of Raymond’s online comments posted as “WhiskeyPete.”
“I think that I retain my right as guaranteed under the First Amendment to have a personal opinion about what goes on in the city I live in and the elected officials that oversee our city,” Raymond told the Tribune.
While Raymond is on leave, the city is reviewing the incident. “We’re doing an inquiry into how he made the comments using city resources and where that line is in terms of legal ramifications and city policies,” according to Langan.
The Tribune identifying an anonymous commenter is unusual, Langan said to iMediaEthics. Langan praised the mayor and said she could understand why Raymond would want to defend him. “On a human level, I can totally appreciate when [the mayor’s] getting attacked the desire to say something back,” she said. But, she acknowledged it wasn’t a good move.
“We were really disappointed in his judgement, but we definitely recognize this was new and uncharted territory,” Langan said.
In a July 30 story, the newspaper explained why it decided to out Raymond. According to the Tribune, one of its online staffers discovered Raymond was behind the account “WhiskeyPete” when one of his comments was flagged by another user for review.
The staffer decided the comment was fine, but noticed the e-mail attached to the “WhiskeyPete” account was Raymond’s — it had his full name in the account, and the IP address belonging to the city government. The Tribune uses Disqus to manage its comments and it “automatically displayed WhiskeyPete’s email address and Internet Protocol,” it said.
From there, the unnamed staffer told Tribune government and politics editor Dan Harrie that Raymond was behind the account.
Tribune Editor and Publisher Terry Orme said in the newspaper’s news story that “It kind of fell into our laps, through a staffer’s journalistic curiosity.” He added. “Generally, when we learn things we think readers want to know or should know, our instinct is to write a story and not judge it by how it came to us.”
Further, it quoted Poynter’s Bob Steele saying the newspaper couldn’t “ignore” what it had found out. Steele indicated it was OK to out Raymond since he used government equipment during an election and there may be legal ramifications.
Commenters aren’t happy with the Tribune, Orme e-mailed iMediaEthics. “The commenting community is not happy. This doesn’t surprise us. We knew this would strike a nerve. And there are those who say we did the right thing.”
Regardless of the criticism, Orme said “the editors in the newsroom feel confident we made a good decision.”
Moving forward, he said “this will spur further introspection and discussion among top editors and the staff at large about our policies and the value of anonymous comments.” He added that he will publish a column Sunday on the matter.
The Tribune noted in its report that it has allowed anonymous online comments since it started its website but said its “terms-of-service policy on comments does not guarantee commenters anonymity.”
The Tribune has outed commenters before when subpoenaed. Orme told iMediaEthics that has been “very rare” – approximately “a handful of times in the last 20 years.”
In the past, the newspaper has e-mailed commenters “when we have issues with their comments, such as they are regularly offensive and/or violate our policies,” Orme said. “Sometimes when we see a comment that seems to be from someone who might have newsworthy information we will contact them and ask them to be a source for a story.”
Back in 2012, the Tennessee newspaper the Commercial Appeal said it wouldn’t identify anonymous commenters when subpoeanaed. Also that year, the Spokane Spokesman-Review was ordered by a judge to identify an anonymous commenter after a lawsuit but the commenter outed herself before the newspaper was forced to.
Several years ago, Ohio judge Shirley Saffold Brown sued the Cleveland Plain Dealer for reporting her e-mail address was behind an anonymous commenter profile. Brown dropped the lawsuit in 2011 after receiving a settlement.
iMediaEthics has been unable to find personal contact information for Raymond.