home Features, Opinion Opinion: Is it okay to use an alias or pen name as a journalist?

Opinion: Is it okay to use an alias or pen name as a journalist?

Should I use my own name or an alias? It’s a question I ask myself whenever I try my hand at journalism. I’ve always found compelling arguments for both, and it’s perhaps an increasingly relevant question today, in the digital age where little stays secret for long, and likewise because of the ever present issue of fake news today.

On one hand it’s very easy to defend the use of pen names and aliases; they’re widely used in many forms within journalism & elsewhere. For example, the newspaper the Economist is entirely anonymous. This is done mainly from a traditional standpoint other publications have long since abandoned, and it is also done to allow the writers to effectively speak with one unified voice. There are, of course, other more practical reasons for the use of a pen-name; writers and journalists in authoritarian regimes have obvious needs to protect their identity, especially if they are being critical of those in power. Likewise, journalists may need to adopt pen names and aliases in order to protect sources, their contacts, or other inside sources of information.

Following on in the same vein, do journalists and writers not have the same right to privacy or anonymity, or is that right reduced because they publish their writings for a living? As such, then should it not be a choice, a decision to made by each individual writer on whether or not they wish to put their name to their writings?

Finally there is a case to be made that there are potential benefits of writing anonymously, mainly that individual articles will be read and judged on their own merit, and not by the name attached. Consider a piece of political analysis – if you knew the writer held strong political views leaning one way or another, you then might, depending on your own views, eagerly pick up the page to read it as an example of excellent journalism, or you might just as easily throw the page away as a piece of uninformed, biased nonsense.

Have you spotted the contradictions yet?

Of course, all of the above points can easily be flipped and used to argue why pen names should not be used. The first one is easy. Just because something is widely used doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the best practice, or is necessarily a good thing. Secondly, while it’s harder to argue against journalists living in authoritarian regimes using aliases to protect their identities in order to escape prosecution or even worse, there are of course arguments to be made that such criticism may be stronger if there is a face attached to it. Likewise, one could easily argue that people have a right to know who is behind the articles in a newspaper, as it may help readers better identify viewpoints or potential biases a writer may have. Furthermore, do people not have a right to know who a writer is so that opinions, articles or viewpoints cannot be published without anyone to stand over them? Should people not know who a writer is, in case of leaks or publishing scandals or breaking news stories, so that they may have a better idea of whether or not information is reliable or trustworthy?

Finally consider the brand effect on pen names. J.K Rowling published her book, The Cuckoo’s Calling, under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith, and struggled to sell as many copies as was expected, only placing in the middle of bestseller lists. Of course, when it emerged that it had been written by J.K Rowling, it shot up to the #1 spot. The implication of the sales history of The Cuckoo’s Calling is that, on merit, the book would not have sold well, but once the brand name of Rowling became attached to it it sold phenomenally well, suggesting that brand name can trump merit.

Perhaps now you can understand why this is such an important and difficult debate faced by journalists.