The discredited Rolling Stone story about rape in a UVA frat house reinforces the undesirability of pseudonyms.
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  • The discredited Rolling Stone story about rape in a UVA frat house reinforces the undesirability of pseudonyms.

If you come across a pseudonym in a news story, do you distrust the entire story? Blogger Steve Buttry—who’s a visiting scholar in the communications school of LSU—titled a recent post “When should journalists use pseudonyms in stories? Never.” I thank Charlie Meyerson for bringing it to my attention on Facebook.

Buttry wrote to second a conclusion reached by the Columbia School of Journalism critique of the discredited Rolling Stone article on rape at the University of Virginia. “Pseudonyms are inherently undesirable in journalism,” said the critique. “They introduce fiction and ask readers to trust that this is the only instance in which a publication is inventing details at its discretion. Their use in this [Rolling Stone] case was a crutch—it allowed the magazine to evade coming to terms with reporting gaps.”

Pseudonyms are always wrong in a “serious story,” says Buttry, adding parenthetically, “(Satire is another matter; I always enjoyed Mike Royko’s imaginary conversations with Slats Grobnik.)”

Let me throw in my own two cents’ worth.

I’m not sure what the hard and fast difference is between a serious story and satire. Royko’s Slats Grobnik columns were funny, but his columns without Grobnik were just as funny. Royko at his most serious was funny. Someone might say of satire that you know it when you see it. But it’s more true that you see it when you know it. Lots of readers never see it: they wouldn’t recognize a satirical sentence if it hit them between the eyes with a dead fish. So instead of allowing pseudonyms, but only as a tool of satire, what if we keep journalism neat and unconfusing by ruling out satire too? If anything might perplex anybody—out it goes.

(Besides, Slats Grobnik wasn’t a pseudonym. He was a totally made up personality! He didn’t say those things under a different name. Nobody said them. OK, Royko’s alter ego said them.)

Years ago I had a brush with the perils of pseudonymity. I was doing a story for the Sun-Times on a group of political refugees who’d fled a despotic regime for Chicago. Unfortunately, it was a despotic regime that Washington wanted to stay on the good side of, and therefore these refugees didn’t feel much safer for now being a few thousand miles from home. They’d meet with me, they said, but only if I changed their names.

So I did. Buttry offers suggestions on how such a situation might be handled: “I would use a description such as occupation or origin: ‘the El Salvador native,’ ‘the farm worker,’ ‘the hotel maid.’ Many Hispanic immigrants could be identified by fairly common last names (or their mothers’ last names) such as Martinez, Rodriquez, or Hernandez.”

These refugees, if I recall correctly, were all young male students. I guess I could have identified them as “young male student A” and B and C and D, etc. Or I could have asked them for their mothers’ last names, and added a line explaining that while these names were chosen to make the students unidentifiable, readers could rest assured that they were technically accurate and trust that everything else in the article was equally unimpeachable.

Instead, I made up names. Unfortunately, there were a lot of names to make up, and while trying to keep track of who everybody now was, I wound up calling one student by the name he actually had. He was horrified. So was the friend who’d set up the meeting, who I assumed would never speak to me again. I made the case that the most impenetrable disguise of all is a pseudonym that wasn’t pseudo. That’s probably true, but the words felt lame as I said them.

The lesson: journalists manipulate names at their own peril, although that doesn’t mean it’s always wrong.

Buttry cites with approval something he’d written in an earlier post last December. “If we can’t agree on a factual name to use,” he said then and has now said again, “I’d rather use a description such as ‘the tall, redheaded sophomore’ or ‘the former small-town cheerleader.’ Again, you’ll need to negotiate what kind of description is acceptable to your source.”

“I could change your name,” says the reporter to the rape victim, “because I do want to tell your story. But I don’t want to introduce falsehood. So what if I call you the ‘pepperpot cheerleader with a million-dollar smile'”?

“Or what about the ‘tall, cool drink of water’?” says the rape victim.

“‘Tawny freshman with flashing orbs’ would get the job done,” says the reporter.

“Please, just call me Murphy,” says the rape victim.

Sketchy descriptions are OK with Buttry, who closes his post by seconding something else he’d said in December.

“Vague is OK in reporting on sexual assault, but inaccurate is not.”

But vague is not OK. Vague is a huge exasperation; it’s why so many cases that make compelling reading founder in the courts or when universities try to adjudicate them. Only two people know what happened and they disagree, and then judges and prosecutors and hearing officers throw up their hands, sometimes because they have no choice. Vague is not OK in reporting on anything, but it does rape victims no good at all.