Editor’s Note: The public editor evaluates the Yale Daily News’ coverage to ensure journalistic integrity. The public editor also liaises between the News’ audience and its newsroom in their capacity as the representative of the News’ readers. Columns written by the public editor do not reflect the opinions of the News, its leadership or its membership at large.
In December 2022, I authored a column about the Yale Daily News’ decision to not publish a story that two reporters requested to be anonymous about a campus vigil to mourn the lives lost to China’s “Zero COVID” policies. That story was published anonymously in another publication.
In my first column, I explained that the News strives to be accountable to its readership. Part of how the News does that is by providing named bylines for all of its A-section stories so that readers may have a person to contact should an article have a mistake and/or error. That is an essential mission. But so is ensuring the safety and well-being of the News’ reporters.
As public editor, I took it upon myself to help the News generate a new policy to ensure accountability and reporter safety. I reviewed coverage of China from multiple media outlets, met with three people with expertise on both China and journalistic ethics, spoke with one of the vigil story authors on multiple occasions and participated in a News community-wide meeting that included one of the original reporters.
Based on these steps, I am writing this column to articulate concrete ways in which the News can better address similar situations in the future:
- Codify an anonymity policy for authors who would otherwise put themselves and/or loved ones in danger by putting their name on a story. Under this policy, the News would place a different reporter’s name, with their consent, on the byline. It is strongly recommended that the new reporter play a substantive role in the story’s creation (e.g. write grafs contextualizing the story, co-conduct interviews and fact-check the story). This policy is the most inconspicuous way to protect our reporters facing extraordinary circumstances while also ensuring that the News is accountable for what it publishes.
- Create a set of standard online harassment policies to protect all reporters from potential retribution. These should be proactively shared by the News leadership along with mental health resources whenever sensitive stories are published.
- Write stories about how recent developments in China such as the end of “Zero COVID” and the subsequent spike in COVID-19 deaths have impacted Chinese and Chinese American communities at Yale and in New Haven.
Using Another Reporter’s Name was the Plan but then Came Miscommunication
After reviewing the facts of the News’ decision, I have concluded that all parties did agree that another reporter should be involved in the story’s creation. Where management and the original vigil reporters disagreed was the extent to which an additional reporter should be involved in a story’s creation for their name to appear.
By recounting the timeline — with an emphasis on the point of miscommunication — and alternative anonymity policies, I explain why my proposal is best suited for the News.
Immediately after publishing my first column, I asked one of the News’ Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, or DEI, chairs to produce a timeline of events surrounding the vigil story in consultation. After hours of conversation with the News’ leadership and one of the original authors, the DEI chair wrote a timeline. All parties have agreed with the accuracy and fairness of the timeline.
A quick summary:
Before the campus vigil occurred, the original authors wanted to have an anonymous byline on the story. Upon hearing these requests, the News’ Editor-in-Chief, or EIC, informed the reporters that anonymity was not possible per newsroom policy and offered to add a new reporter to the story. The original reporters agreed to have another reporter help them.
Next came miscommunication.
The EIC believed that the original reporters would have a say in the story’s formulation but not write any of it. The original reporters believed that the new reporter, whose name would be on the story, would simply sign off on the story. The original reporters wrote most of the vigil story themselves and had the new reporter sign off on it. Finding this out, the EIC informed the original reporters that either they must use their names for the article or another one must be written by someone else. The original reporters then decided to publish their article anonymously via another publication.
It deeply saddens me that the original reporters decided to go to another outlet. And I do wish that the News publish the story despite the miscommunication. But I do not blame the reporters.
China does not have freedom of the press. It is led by an authoritarian regime with a history of crushing dissent and harassing journalists. Chinese journalists have been jailed and killed. Chinese reporters working in the United States face extraordinary risks as well. The mere inclusion of one’s name in an article critical of the Chinese Communist Party — such as the vigil story which was about a historic protest — could add them to a government list. That prospect makes returning to China dangerous and even places the reporter’s extended family in danger. Chinese reporters at top American papers such as the New York Times, Washington Post and Wall Street Journal, assume this risk whenever they put their names in article bylines and taglines. Both professional and college newsrooms must reduce this risk and keep their reporters safe.
For these reasons, I am proposing that the News allow endangered reporters to have another reporter take the lead byline as long as all parties consent and the new reporter plays a substantive role in a story’s creation. My proposed anonymity policy not only keeps the News accountable and reporters safe but it also empowers reporters with the agency they deserve.
Alternative Policies Compromise Accountability and/or Reporter Safety
In my conversations with experts on journalistic ethics and China, I carefully asked about all possible anonymity policies. From the start, I knew that whatever policy recommendation I would articulate in this column had to hold the News accountable for what it publishes and ensure its reporters are safe. After carefully considering the options, I have determined that alternative policies compromise at least one of these goals.
The News could use a pseudonym to grant anonymity. Pen names, however, are not a widely used practice and have been the subject of intense scrutiny. As a practical manner, a pen name, say “Eli Yale,” would require the News to make an entirely new profile page and Yale email address to not appear suspicious. A new profile page is certainly possible but a new Yale email address is not. Therefore, a pseudonym would be suspicious.
Moreover, given the extraordinary and unprecedented nature of this solution, a regular A-section story sporting a pen name with a strange email would stick out like a sore thumb. I fear that the hypothetical story would garner unwanted attention from malicious actors, Chinese Communist Party or otherwise. And this is not a ridiculous concern. When news broke out about the News’ decision to not publish the vigil story, other Chinese staffers felt and were adversely impacted.
Using this reasoning, other anonymity solutions such as using the News’ masthead, the names of relevant desk editors or dropping a byline altogether are not suitable solutions either.
This leaves the only viable anonymity policy to be to use another reporter’s name. This solution is the most inconspicuous way for the News to ensure the safety of its staffers while being held accountable for what it publishes.
I understand that this proposal is not perfect. For articles using this solution, the named reporter would face the brunt of public pushback should any arise. This is why the new reporter should not only consent to use their name in the byline but also, at the very least, review the story. However, I would strongly prefer if a new reporter played a more substantive role in the article’s creation. In my view, writing a few sentences contextualizing the ongoing situation in China and co-conducting interviews with student leaders does not dilute the voice of the anonymous. Rather, I see these steps as a way to include Chinese journalists, which is standard practice at top publications.
This column is more than just a policy recommendation aimed at holding the News accountable and reporters safe. It is the first time the News’ Public Editor has issued a concrete recommendation. Many hours of close reading, attentive listening and considerate writing went into this piece. I hope that future Public Editors respond to controversies through the same meticulousness in which I engaged. But more importantly, I hope that this column leads to an internal dialogue about finally codifying newsroom policies — and making critical adjustments to them when necessary.
Christian Robles, Public Editor