Are pen names ever OK in journalism?

If your name is “Jason Huntmann,” then your name should be Jason Huntmann.

That’s the guiding principle I was operating under earlier this winter when I wrote about The Washington Post’s decision to pull down an op-ed piece after I questioned the author’s identity.

“Jason” had used the vaunted space of the Post’s opinion page to trash Washington, D.C., and its people, using a bad experience on our public transportation system as an illustration of everything that’s wrong with us.
The piece seemed far-fetched and over the top, and an odd choice for a self-described recent transplant to the city. Howdy, new neighbor! I hate you!

A statue of Molière, whose real name was Jean-Baptiste Poquelin. (AP Photo/Jacques Brinon)

The Post reached out to Jason to get another form of personal verification, but he never wrote back. The piece, “D.C., you’re depressing,” is staying down.

But was this episode a story at all? A commenter on my original piece seemed to disagree that it was, asking: “So writing under a pseudonym is unacceptable now?”

It’s a fair question, and one I decided to explore. Certainly there’s a long history of authors writing under pen names, but things get a little trickier when the conversation shifts to journalism.

The Post, for one, is not OK with anonymous/pen-named bylines.

“We are hard-line on our rule, both for op-eds and for letters: you cannot be anonymous,” wrote Post Editorial Page Editor Fred Hiatt in an email. “Our reasoning is that readers have a right to know who is speaking to them, and writers need to take responsibility for what they say.”

And using a pen name guts the accountability that underpins journalism.

“A pen name is outright deception,” Poynter’s Kelly McBride said in a phone interview. “I can’t fathom a defensible reason to run an op-ed under a fake name.”

McBride suggested writers might want to use a pseudonym when “putting out an idea that they didn’t want attached to their name,” which is obviously problematic. (Huntmann’s D.C. takedown piece seems like a prime example.)

A pen name can also provide “a license to lie,” writes Carmela Ciuraru in Nom de Plume: A (Secret) History of Pseudonyms, which chronicles 18 pseudonymous writers throughout history.

Over email, Ciuraru made clear the difference between using pen names in literature and doing so in journalism: “Using a pen name to publish a memoir or novel that could sabotage one’s job, family, and work relationships is one thing; using a quick pen name on a news site is either cowardly or just for fun, but not very interesting.”

Tim Maughan, the commenter on my original piece, couched his support for pen names as part of a larger concern for the personal safety of online writers who say unpopular things.

“There’s a slightly worrying trend online … that everybody should be traceable. That if you’re writing on the Internet there should be a digital footprint for you,” said Maughan, who is himself a fiction writer.

“Being able to write under a pseudonym is an important safeguard that everyone should have at their disposal,” he said in a phone interview.

That’s one of the reasons why a now-former Gawker writer used a pen name for many years.

In February 2013, Jeb Lund revealed his identity (or “doxxed” himself) after penning numerous pieces under a nom de plume borrowed from deceased African dictator Mobutu Sese Seko.

Lund had adopted the moniker after being harassed and threatened by Internet detractors. But in addition to providing a measure of security, it turns out that the nom de plume had a certain je ne sais quoi.

“When I took this job, I assumed it would be expected of me to write under my own name from day one, but [then-Gawker Editor A.J. Daulerio] thought the Mobutu name had much more of a Q-rating and a kind of intrinsic interest,” Lund wrote.

And last month, Gawker ran a pseudonymous piece (“Woody Allen Is Not a Monster. He Is a Person. Like My Father.”) by “William Warwick,” who wrote about being sexually abused by his father when he was younger.

But when a journalist’s safety is at stake, using a fake name won’t quite cut it, McBride said, adding that “the power of the crowd is pretty fierce.”
“If you really feel like someone needs protection, then you’ve got to protect them,” she said. “And changing their name is not going to do that.”

Even if there are legitimate reasons for requesting pseudonymity, it’s not generally worth it for an institution like the Post to grant the request and give authors the freedom to write without being accountable for what they say.

And if a publication does choose to grant such a request, it would help if its editors know they’re running a pseudonymous story from the get-go. That didn’t seem to happen with Jason Huntmann’s piece.

“There are many understandable reasons people may have to want to keep their identities private,” Hiatt said. “At the same time, there’s no inherent right to be published on an op-ed or letters page.”

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  • Gayle Falkenthal

    Threats to female journalists online are real and common. If we require journalists to use real names (and we should), we should also require anyone posting a public comment on a news site to use a real name. For decades, print editors would not accept a “Letter to the Editor” for publication without a name (and most asked for address and phone on background, not for publication). Why we have abandoned this practice online is something I don’t understand. It encourages the sort of abuse T Rapalyea refers to. I’ve been targeted by trolls for reasons that are bizarre and unsettling.

  • T. Rapalyea

    I’m glad you brought up the issue of safety. Female journalists often get the brunt of trolls and harassment, ranging from “innocent” but unsavory comments to full-on stalking and death threats (see: “Why Misogynist Trolls Make Journalism Miserable for Women,” The Atlantic).

    I agree that someone should not be fully anonymous, but an agreement to write under a pen name with an editor who knows your identity should be on the table.