April 7, 2015

I can think of a half-dozen times in my writing career when I used a pseudonym for a character.  Every time, I regretted it.  The regret did not come from the exposure of some journalistic malpractice.  It came, instead, from my desire to tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth, and being stymied from doing so. And it came, even with full disclosure, from a set of problems and temptations that I confronted after I wrote, “Let’s call her Dolores,” or “I’ll call him Timmy (not his real name).”  As a result of my inhibitions as a writer, I have turned from skeptic to cynic as a reader.  When I see, especially in a magazine story or a memoir, “not his real name,” I want to add “not his real story.”

Of all the problems with the Rolling Stone story, its promiscuous use of pseudonyms stands as a kind of gateway drug to more consequential forms of malpractice. The Columbia Graduate School of Journalism report on the scandal seems to concur:

“Pseudonyms are inherently undesirable in journalism. 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 case was a crutch – it allowed the magazine to evade coming to terms with reporting gaps. Rolling Stone should consider banning them. If its editors believe pseudonyms are an indispensable tool for its forms of narrative writing, the magazine should consider using them much more rarely and only after robust discussion about alternatives, with dissent encouraged.”

So if pseudonym are “inherently undesirable” why did I and many other journalists, over generations, use the false name as a narrative tool?  There are a number of legitimate reasons:

  1. Because the main source will not cooperate using a real name.
  2. Because the source is a whistleblower and fears the consequences of exposure.
  3. Because the source is vulnerable – say, someone who is in the country illegally – and fears prosecution.
  4. Because the character represents a stigmatized class of individuals and has a secret to hide, such as a closeted professional athlete.
  5. Because the character is young.
  6. Because the character – as in an old flame in a memoir – is not a public figure and may not want exposure in your story.
  7. Because you were not in a position to get and then report a name, as when you see something happen in a riot or protest.

Rather than sacrifice a good story in the public interest, many writers and editors would reach – however reluctantly – for the crutch of the pseudonym.

But here is the problem as I experienced it personally.  Let’s take the character I called Timmy above.  He appeared in a long personal narrative I wrote that described my first understanding of the forms of anti-Semitism that led to the Holocaust.  Timmy was an otherwise unremarkable 12-year-old from my past (I realize I am using a pseudonym to describe him, but please be patient) who spouted virulent forms of anti-Semitism. As I remember it, he collected Nazi memorabilia, used words like “Kike,” and said nasty things about the Jewish kids on the block.

Now he may have turned out to become a great humanitarian. Who knows?  I wanted to include him in my story, but I was reluctant to use his real name.  I wanted to protect him from me.  But guess what?  Once I reached that point, I realized that I couldn’t describe him honestly. I would have to disguise him further, his speech patterns, the color of his hair.  If I had described him accurately, I was sure others would be able to identify him, and who knows what the consequences might have been to “Timmy” or to me?  In a literary setting, and this includes journalism, the pseudonym becomes a form of witness protection.

The Columbia report on Rolling Stone seems to support that:

“Woods said he ultimately approved pseudonyms because he didn’t want to embarrass the three students by having Jackie’s account of their self-involved patter out there for all their friends and classmates to see. ‘I wanted to protect them,’ he said.”

The desire to protect sources of all kinds is a strong influence in editorial decision making.  But there is almost always an equal desire to protect the story.  I am not using the word “story” here in a loose way, the way journalists tend to do.  Journalists write “reports” and then call them “stories.”  By story, I mean a narrative form of writing that creates, in essence, a virtual experience, a form of literary transportation that lifts me from my reading chair to whatever setting awaits me.  The writer of the Rolling Stone story put me in that terrible place “Jackie” said she experienced, in a room in a frat house in Charlottesville, Virginia, where it felt as if I were witnessing a rape, or being raped.

To create that effect, we know, requires characters, scenes, dialogue, time in motion.  There may be no more important quality for character development than a name (Ishmael, Holden Caulfield, Emma).  What if I can’t use a real name?  The next best thing is a false name, the literal translation of the Greek word “pseudonym.”

There are two kinds of distortion in journalism, and we tend to treat them differently.  According to author John Hersey, there is distortion by subtraction, like the way we crop a photo, or use only a fraction of our notes.  Leaving out certain information distorts the truth, and that is certainly what happened in parts of the Rolling Stone story.  But, in general, distortion by subtraction is an inevitable part of an imperfect practice.  We are much less tolerant of distortion by addition, as when we add a quote that was never spoken, or change the location of a conversation for dramatic effect.  Addition is the tipping point from journalism into fiction and its seed has a name: the fake name.


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Roy Peter Clark has taught writing at Poynter to students of all ages since 1979. He has served the Institute as its first full-time faculty…
Roy Peter Clark

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