How to Go Semipublic in the Google Age

First name. Picture. No last name. 

The media are accustomed to hiding sources’ faces. But hiding their last name might be more important.

Photo by Hlib Shabashnyi/Thinkstock

The New York Times had a powerful story last weekend about a college student who reported her rape to campus officials at Hobart and William Smith Colleges only for them to brutally bungle the case.

Sexual assault victims are one of a few classes of sources who are typically afforded full anonymity by the news media—for their own protection, and to insulate them from the stigma of the crime.

In this case, however, the student was willing to go public. She clearly understood that it would lend her story greater credibility and force, and make it harder for people—the public, her classmates, school officials, law enforcement—to write her off.

The story used her real first name, Anna. It also included her voice and her face, in both photos and a video in which she reflected on her experience. The reader is forced to confront Anna not as a faceless accuser but as a human being who has suffered. The Times left out just one key piece of identifying information: Anna’s last name.

At first that struck me as odd. What good does it do to leave out a subject’s last name when you’ve already so clearly identified her to anyone who’s ever met her? And then I realized: Anna and the Times aren’t trying to hide her identify from anyone who’s ever met her. They’re trying to hide it from all the people who never have. That is, they’re shielding her identity from Google.

In the age of print-only media, the consequences of reporting someone’s full name were mostly local and temporary. Sure, a determined seeker might dig them up years later by visiting the newspaper’s office and poring through its morgue. But they had to know what they were looking for.

When journalists identify sources in the Internet age, the consequences are greater in both scope and permanence. Anyone the source encounters for years to come—and possibly for the rest of her life—will be able to pull up the relevant articles in seconds just by Googling her name. The story, in short, will follow her everywhere.

The media, broadly speaking, have not adjusted to this. Sources are still expected to attach their names to their stories and quotations more or less as before. “I’d like to say that journalists have become more sensitive,” says LynNell Hancock, a professor at the Columbia Journalism School who focuses on education and children’s rights, “but I don’t think I can say that.” There are good reasons why journalists are required to use sources’ full names in most cases. Definitive identification both holds the source accountable for his claims and deters the reporter from fabricating information. Faces lend further credibility.

And of course there are times when true anonymity is appropriate, as when quoting government or corporate whistleblowers. Over the years journalists have come up with gradations of anonymity that give the reader an idea of the source’s position and motivations, like “a senior White House staffer,” without outing her entirely.

But there are other situations in which a source is willing to go public, but only within the context of the story—that is, as public as it was possible to go in the pre-Internet age, but not so public that her rape story will be the first thing potential employers see when they look her up online. And not so public that it will be the first thing her grandchildren see 50 years from now when they’re old enough to use a computer, or whatever has replaced computers by then.

In such cases, the Times’ solution in Anna’s case may offer an attractive middle ground. “The combination of first name only and image I think is unusual, but I think it’s ethically defensible,” says Bruce Shapiro, executive director of the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma. “I think it’s a smart solution, actually, because it lends further credibility to the story and she does want to bear witness. She just seems to want a degree of identity insulation in the long run. And I think that’s a legitimate compromise.”

Hancock notes that it’s essentially the same approach the Times used in its epic “Invisible Child” series last year about a homeless girl named Dasani, whose last name was not used in the story. The Times declined to comment on whether this is a formal policy or just a choice made on a case-by-base basis. Either way, it seems like a wise approach that more publications ought to explore.

That isn’t to say that it’s foolproof. The Times was careful not to attach Anna’s full name to her story, but those who know her could easily connect the dots on a blog or social media. And while faces aren’t publicly searchable today, companies like Facebook and Google are hard at work on face-recognition technology. Absent public outcry or regulation, it’s easy to imagine a future in which anyone could find Anna’s full name by doing a reverse-image search on her photo.

Europe has responded to the changes wrought by search engines and the Web by trying to create a legal “right to be forgotten.” But it has quickly become apparent that this can lead to the suppression of information to which the public really ought to have access. Which raises the question: Would we need a right to be forgotten in a world where everyone was more careful about what they committed to the Internet’s memory in the first place?