The high level of journalism displayed by the Clarion and Ms. McChesney in their coverage of Cook Inlet’s fishery issues stands in stark and startling contrast to the public commentary offered in the Clarion’s online edition and in public comment on Internet forums.
Moreover, letters to the editor require a name while online comments, whether on the Clarion’s site or on an Internet forum, are made anonymously. One need read only a smattering of anonymous, online comments to realize that what some folks say from the safety of anonymity could be cause for punitive action if said openly.
Unsubstantiated accusations of state personnel and agencies — particularly ADF&G — are regularly made by people passing themselves off anonymously as “in the know,” and of knowing “who’s-doing-what-and-why.” What are the ethics of anonymous, online commentary? What are the legalities? Accusations and slander presented as fact when there is little to no evidence to substantiate the accusation or slander are or should be cause for legal action. On the other hand, such statements presented as opinion only are and should be protected under the 1st Amendment.
At CBS, Lara Logan and her producer, are on leave over possible inaccuracies in a 60-Minutes segment. Recently, a cheerleader won a defamation suit over Internet slander, and the website’s owner was also implicated. I’d encourage the Clarion — and Internet fora owners — to either disallow anonymity altogether or, alternatively, to require documented substantiation of any and all slanderous statements made about people and/or state agencies.