AA Confronts Media Over Anonymity

By Dirk Hanson 05/25/11

Do news outlets have a duty to protect the anonymity of AA members?

Time to shed the media secrecy?
Photo via healtalk

AA member David Colman’s recent New York Times article questioning the notion of anonymity within Alcoholics Anonymous continues to provoke controversy in the the media and across twelve-step communities across the nation. The firestorm was initially fueled by a column at The Fix by Susan Cheever asking whether anonymity had outlived its usefulness in the modern world. In response, AA's world headquarters has sent a letter to major news media outlets asking them to honor the tradition of not printing the last names or the photographs of any AA members, even if they choose to identify  themselves as such. John Drescher, executive editor of the Raleigh News and Observer, published a thoughtful response to this request on Saturday.  The crux of the question, he says, is whether journalists have a responsibility to protect the anonymity of AA members—even members who have already gone public about their addiction. As far as Drescher is concerned, the answer is no.

“In these two areas,” Drescher declares, “we will not meet AA’s request.” The recent revelation of membership in Alcoholics Anonymous by pro football player Erik Ainge (see our earlier post), coupled with a similar disclosure by former U.S. Rep. Patrick Kennedy (see our coverage here ), prompted dozens of local AA members to petition Drescher on behalf of anonymity, he writes. The AA-ers pointed to Principle No. 11: “We need always maintain personal anonymity at the level of press, radio and films.”

In 2010, a similar press release from the General Services Office of Alcoholics Anonymous had asked for continued press cooperation in the matter: “Those who are reluctant to seek our help may overcome their fear if they are confident that their anonymity will be respected. In addition, and perhaps less understood, our tradition of anonymity acts as a restraint on AA members, reminding us that we are a program of principles, not personalities, and that no individual AA member may presume to act as a spokesman or leader of our fellowship.”

Drescher responds: “AA believes alcoholics should be able to attend meetings without fear of their identity being revealed. No one could argue with that…. AA has a 75-year track record of helping people to recover. We are glad to help tell that story. Whether members should be permitted to reveal their identities is a matter for AA members to discuss and decide. But once an AA member identifies himself, as Ainge and Kennedy have, our only obligation is to report their comments fairly and accurately.”

Which, come to think of it, is the policy of The Fix as well. We’re certainly not in the business of outing AA members, but if they choose to identify themselves as such, we’re not going to edit out their last names, either, especially if they're public figures. As Drescher concluded in the pages of the Raleigh News and Observer, “We won’t be able to meet AA’s request for anonymity in cases in which members identify themselves. But we will continue to carry AA’s message of hope and recovery.”

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Dirk Hanson, MA, is a freelance science writer and the author of The Chemical Carousel: What Science Tells Us About Beating Addiction. He is also the author of The New Alchemists: Silicon Valley and the Microelectronics Revolution. He has worked as a business and science reporter for numerous magazines and trade publications including Wired, Scientific American, The Dana Foundation and more. He currently edits the Addiction Inbox blog. Email: [email protected]