Now here’s an interesting ethical dilemma. James Donahue, a Haverhill city councilor, apparently posted comments on the Eagle-Tribune’s Web site under perhaps as many as 38 different screen names. How do we know this? Because the Eagle-Tribune exposed him last Saturday.
Donahue acknowledged using multiple screen names, but said that at least some of the 38 names traced to his computer were those of supporters hanging around his house. The city’s mayor, James Fiorentini, a frequent recipient of Donahue’s barbs, admitted that he, too, has been known to respond to his critics without revealing his identity.
Here’s the question. Even if you grant that what Donahue did was stupid, was it ethical for the Eagle-Tribune to expose him? There is nothing in the comment box telling you to use your real name. (I’ve posted a few pseudonymous comments at the Salem News’ site — part of the same chain as the Tribune.) It seems to me that the Tribune used proprietary information to embarrass Donahue, and without giving him fair warning that he was doing anything wrong.
It’s not clear exactly how the Tribune tracked Donahue down. The comment box does ask for a valid e-mail address. But the story says the posts were tracked to “Donahue’s personal computer,” which makes me think someone traced the messages to his IP address. If Google had done this, there would be an uproar.
The paper defends its outing in an editorial, saying in part:
It is not the general practice of this newspaper to seek the identity of those who comment on stories, although there is no explicit guarantee of anonymity. Virtually all the management of the comments section of the online edition is aimed at removing posts that are profane, racist or personal attacks.
However, one of the forum moderators noticed a pattern of posts under dozens of different names, and then discovered that they had all come from the same computer address. When it became clear that they were coming from the computer of an elected public official, it became our obligation to let the public know.
The average citizen does not take an oath to serve the public. An elected official does. An attempt to deceive the public is clearly not serving it, and a public official who does so is not only undeserving of the protection of confidentiality, but deserves public criticism.
Now Donahue’s in trouble with his fellow councilors. And I would imagine there’s going to be some awkwardness, at the very least, over his job as a teacher at a public school. (“What kind of an example … ?”)
I’m not sure I buy the Eagle-Tribune’s argument. It seems to me that the paper has chosen to humiliate Donahue for doing something the paper itself implicitly invited him to do, and that it used information available to no one else. If the Tribune had caught Donahue doing the same thing on, say, a non-Tribune blog, that would be fine. But this comes pretty close to entrapment, does it not?
I’m still pondering this, though, and would be curious to hear from Media Nation readers what you think. I promise not to trace your IP addresses. I guarantee you that I wouldn’t know how.