Editorial | Selling sex, the news media sell out
Published: Thursday, October 1, 2009
Updated: Friday, October 2, 2009 07:10
The New York Times, The Boston Globe, Time Magazine, The New Yorker, US News and World Report, CNN, NBC News, ABC News, CBS News and countless other national news sources have all taken on an issue of grave importance that they feel they must cover — despite the fact that it only affects a small group of a few thousand young adults in the Boston area.
The Daily ran a story on Sept. 24 exposing the Office of Residential Life and Learning's new policy that "prohibits any sex act in a dorm room while one's roommate is present." The new rule further states that any sexual activity in the room should not interfere with a roommate's privacy, studies or sleep schedule.
Soon after the article ran, news stations began picking up the story. Now, a week later, Google News has archived approximately 300 recent articles about the rule. Students at Tufts are largely unperturbed by the policy (they're more interested in why it has caused such a stir among the approximately 6.95 billion people who do not attend Tufts). The fact that national news publications feel the need to report on this insignificant story should provide some insight into the reasons for the degradation that marks today's news industry.
The only reason that this story has seen such broad coverage is that sex sells — that much is clear. But this is not necessarily the best reason to slap a story on the front page. While this editorial was being written, "Tufts University: No sex in room while roommate is present" held the number-one spot on CNN.com's list of its most popular stories. Not a single article concerning politics or international affairs penetrated the top seven.
In the unendingly competitive realm of online news, clicks count. Newspapers and magazines are still caught in an adolescent period of growing pains and insecurity as they move onto the Internet — a mutation that's as unavoidable for them now as growing taller is for children. Consequently, we're in the era of "search engine optimization," a practice by which Web sites — including some news sites — figure out how Google.com and other search engines generate results, and then manipulate their own Web pages to fit into that formula. It's the reason that Esquire Magazine, known to be a cut above its relatively low-brow competitors like Maxim and FHM, titled the Web page for its photo shoot of Mary Louise Parker in her underwear, "Mary Louise Parker Naked Photos - Mary Louise Parker Ass - Esquire." A page's title tag is a major determining factor in a Google search.
The cutthroat competition for readers could also be seen as a contributing factor to CNN's misreporting of Tufts' sex policy; its article states in the second paragraph, "The Massachusetts university's formal rule also bars so-called ‘sexiling' — exiling a roommate from the room so the other roommate can engage in sexual activity." This is entirely untrue. Perhaps the latent necessity of sensationalizing to attract Web viewers came into play in the crafting of that sentence, or made CNN's editors that much less concerned with its validity.
As newspapers slash their staffs and cut their investigative units right and left, it can be frustrating to witness the amount of attention given to this relatively inconsequential story. The new regulation might involve the word "sex," but it seems to have really been intended more as a safety net than as an excuse for the university to investigate students' private lives. That point of view is not featured in most of the articles that Google News turns up. Both the choice of content and the way it has been presented do not do very much justice to the implicit code of ethics that national news sources are expected to follow.
But when New York magazine's site traffic jumped by 2,000 percent in February 2008 because of a photo spread of Lindsay Lohan posing in the nude, it might have been understandable — at least from a fiscal perspective — if the magazine had altogether stopped writing stories about the presidential election or the city's mayor and become a semi-nude photos outlet. And what's to say there's no temptation to reorient things here at the Daily? After all, our Web traffic spiked by nearly 300 percent a couple days after we published our piece on the policy.
This article has been changed from its originally published version for reasons of clarity.