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American Journalism Review
Too Hot for the Web  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Columns
From AJR,   October 2000

Too Hot for the Web   

Many news Web sites adhere to the taste standards of their old-media parents.

By Barb Palser
Barb Palser (, AJR's new-media columnist, is vice president, account management, with Internet Broadcasting.     

"FOR MORE ON THIS story, log on to our Web site..."
That TV toss usually promises documents, video and hyperlinks that are too expansive to squeeze into a newscast. But what if it were also used to pitch extra sex, swearing and violence?
Imagine yourself an online editor at a television network's Web site. A producer asks you to post a questionable piece of video--say, a suicide caught on tape--that complements a story the network is airing that night. The executives have decided the tape is a tad too graphic for prime time TV, but the producer doesn't want to leave it on the cutting room floor. She wants to tease the Web version at the end of the story for the benefit of viewers who want to see it.
This particular example is fiction, but the dilemma isn't. A similar scenario recently confronted a colleague of mine, and likely many other online editors at television or newspaper Web sites. In that case the Web editor chose not to publish the video, since she would not have published it in an independent context.
It's an interesting circumstance for two reasons. First, it turns the tables on conservative media moguls and attorneys who wag their fingers at the "rash" decisions of Web publishers. More often online editors find themselves defending decisions to post information--lists of sex offenders, for example--that might not be so accessible otherwise.
Second, it illustrates that online news sites, while certainly more free than their print or broadcast counterparts, have curiously chosen to abide by similar standards of taste and sensitivity.
In a way, the broadcaster's reasoning made sense: The Web site would be a more appropriate place for borderline content, since it's inherently less intrusive than TV. Viewers must make a conscious and active move to play the clip.
In a world where networks and newspapers are constantly trying to one-up each other with shocking pictures and stories, it's surprising more salacious stuff hasn't found its way online. It's a wonder that the Web, a natural storehouse for enhanced coverage and resources, hasn't also become de facto repository for all the news that's too hot to air or print.
The Starr report is a classic--but isolated-- example. When the document was released, every serious news site in the country made it available online (see "Web Feat"). Millions of viewers didn't jam the Internet merely looking for more information; they wanted more smut.
Why doesn't that happen more often? When authorities raid a strip club...or a public figure is heard swearing at TV cameras...or raw war zone footage is filmed by camera crews...why don't these clips find their way onto news sites instead of the garbage can?
After all, sexy stories are guaranteed to garner clicks. And "expanded coverage" is what the Internet is all about. Unlike TV or print, the Web does allow unique mechanisms--buffer pages, for example--for segregating information and shielding graphic imagery from folks who don't actively seek it. It is possible to make a viewer pass through several checkpoints before looking at a particular page.
Yet online news sites are almost as vigilant against borderline pictures or language as their traditional counterparts. Heck, they don't even swear.
A totally informal search for dirty words on several major TV and newspaper Web sites yielded scant results.
Why are online news sites taking the high road when they could likely get away with so much more?
Perhaps it's because they're beholden to the policies of their traditional parent companies, which have reputations to uphold and expectations to consider.
Many of us would like to believe it's because online editors are conscientious about preserving the integrity of their profession and their freedom to make independent decisions--sensationalism is sensationalism in any world.
Or perhaps the idea hasn't caught on yet. As networks and publishers learn to use the Web more effectively as a news delivery tool, online editors might feel more pressure to post content their partners are afraid to publish. Maybe it's only a matter of time before Web sites start putting out R-rated versions of some stories.
Is the idea an inherently bad one? After all, we've been struggling all along to make clear that the Internet is a different medium, with more latitude and flexibility than print or broadcast. The fundamental premise of the Web is the ability to determine one's own experience. Why not make newsworthy material available to the people who want to see it?
Perhaps we will. But the choice to test the boundaries and tastes of the online medium should belong to those who built it.



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