Staff Editorial: Anonymous Op-Eds

Readers and journalists around the world have been left in awe by a recent anonymous op-ed published in the New York Times. Reportedly written by a top official in the Trump administration, the essay is titled, “I Am Part of the Resistance Inside the Trump Administration,” and outlines a secret vow among like-minded senior officials to thwart parts of Trump’s agenda. Members of the administration and Trump himself have decried the article, calling it “gutless,” “amateur” and “irresponsible,” yet many others see the article as a beacon of hope in a time of intense political strife.

While unusual, the anonymous op-ed is not an entirely new device. The New York Times has published anonymous op-eds before, usually written by people who would be in imminent danger if their identities were revealed. In 2009, an Iranian student penned an anonymous op-ed speaking out against American media coverage of the re-election of Ahmadinejad. In 2016, a Syrian refugee living in Greece and a Syrian journalist living in ISIS-controlled Raqqa both submitted anonymous op-eds, with the understanding that revealing either of their identities would place them in immediate danger. Most recently, an El Salvadorian woman wrote an anonymous essay earlier this year detailing her family’s experience in a detention center. Her identity was concealed as a caution against gang-related threats. An anonymous piece from within the American government, however, is entirely without precedent.

In a recent interview, Jim Dao, op-ed editor for the New York Times, explained the rationale behind the anonymous piece stating, “In our view, this op-ed offered a significant first-person perspective we haven’t presented to our readers before … The only way that could happen was for us to publish the essay without a byline. That was an extraordinary step for us, but the piece touched off what we believe to be an important national debate.”

As a national publication, the New York Times and similar news sources are in a unique position to reach a wide audience. Op-eds written anonymously can have a large impact and can signal an important issue that the country (or possibly world) at large should address. With the audience that they have, the New York Times can use anonymity to try to incite change or bring awareness to an issue. On the other hand, smaller publications such as The Lawrentian could publish anonymous op-eds, but the scope of the audience is not nearly as great. Therefore, the impact of the anonymous voice is lost.

As an editorial board, we believe that under certain circumstances we would consider publishing an anonymous op-ed. For example, in cases involving sexual assault or issues pertaining to undocumented students, we feel protecting students’ identities is paramount. In these and other situations, the Lawrentian editorial board would carefully deliberate any request to publish an anonymous op-ed to ensure we safely and respectfully serve both the author and the Lawrence community.

We recognize some potential problems to come with publishing anonymous op-eds. First, it would be extremely difficult to verify sources. Unlike the New York Times, the Lawrentian is hardly equipped to confirm such personal information in our close knit community. With such a small student body, having multiple sources verify such events could lead to violations of privacy.

Publishing one anonymous op-ed could subject the Lawrentian to an excess of anonymous pieces. As journalists, we understand how important it is to back up our opinions with our names, and take responsibility for what we publish. By allowing for an abundance of anonymous op-eds without anyone taking direct responsibility for statements, the Lawrentian could become a sounding board for bullying, defamation or slander.

We respect the New York Times’ decision to publish the anonymous op-ed while realizing that such a bold move may not be appropriate for a small university newspaper such as the Lawrentian. Regardless of who wrote the incendiary op-ed, its publication has inspired an essential discussion between journalists, editors, and readers around the world.