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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.

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This article has been changed from its originally published version for reasons of clarity.

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16 comments Log in to Comment

LA'98
Mon Oct 5 2009 15:18
"Not a single article concerning politics or international affairs penetrated the top seven." Penetrated... interesting word choice given the subject matter. Perhaps the new rule could be rescinded and replaced with a general guideline, "roommates should attempt to speak to each other about differences and work out problems by communicating - a vital skill which will ensure success in career and life." You might say it would put the second L in RL&L.
George Patsourakos
Fri Oct 2 2009 16:03
Tufts University has opened up a huge can of worms -- and a negative national media barrage -- by its new policy of a dorm roommate having sex when another roommate is present.

Why was this not a problem at Tufts for the past hundred years, but it is now?

Students know how to respect each other's rights, and the administration or residence office should not be intruding on their lifestyles.

Your name
Fri Oct 2 2009 14:10
I am a parent of a sophomore and care deeply about our son's experience at Tufts. Although I believe that courtesy between roommates is extremely important, I feel that a stated rule about sex in the room has made a laughing stock out of Tufts. I am much more concerned about underage drinking, the quality of food in the dining hall, and the competence of his teachers than I am about his roommates having sex. That is between them. If one has chosen wisely (after freshman year), then the roommate should be a person who is considerate of others.
TUFTSDORMPIG
Fri Oct 2 2009 13:11
So Tufts gets butthurt and now the daily thinks all media is obsessed with sex?
myname
Fri Oct 2 2009 12:35
Shut Up & Steve: I agree completely. I can't believe that more commentary doesn't address how a policy was created by ONE person in an office notorious for incompetence and irrationality (supposedly in response to "about" 12 complaints, which, even if all complaints were made last year, reflects about 0.3% of resident students at Tufts that year), without student input as to content, implementation, or impact, and allowed to totally spiral out of hand, reflecting incredibly badly on Tufts as an instition. This sort of garbage is not reflective of the academic reputation / institutional perception Tufts should be encouraging - Tufts Alumni Facebook announcements about Jimmy Kimmel discussing this??? - and I sincerely hope that there are consequences for those responsible for making the institution a laughingstock.
EBB
Fri Oct 2 2009 02:20
Fabulous editorial! Wonderfully written and super great.
Shut up
Fri Oct 2 2009 02:00
Wow, what a bunch of moralizing crap. Instead of getting on a soapbox and denouncing every media company for reporting on a human interest story just because you're upset that it made Tufts look bad, talk about how retarded this rule is and how Tufts could have possibly imagined it would be received any other way.
Jumbolaya
Fri Oct 2 2009 00:40
Excellent editorial.
Your name
Thu Oct 1 2009 19:40
You act like this is the only story that is published for ratings or attention. Most news stories have NOTHING to do with those who read them. Did the tsunami in Samoa affect you? Probably not, but I bet you read about it. Did the death of Caylee Anthony directly affect you? Again, most likely no. This article makes it seem as though Tufts has been the only victim of the posting of semi relevant information. In a society that is marked by information overload, news organizations will electronically publish anything that might be of interest to someone because it's easy to do, and the demand for news stories be it about celebrities, crime, or weird new rules is out there. It's a business. Tufts hasn't been victimized by these articles like you imply. The news organizations are posting largely irrelevant information every day with a vast majority of their topics. This is just one that interested quite a few people.
Steve H. A'72
Thu Oct 1 2009 19:07
The O.R.L.L. has nothing better to do than open a Pandora's box on the subject of roommate presence during sex in dorm rooms? This is political correctness gone wild! Forty years ago when I attended Tufts this matter was handled with silence and simplicity. One would place a necktie or a towel on the outside doorknob to alert his roommate that activity was underway. The roommate would see this, then join his friends down the hall and get high for a while. Everyone was happy, and we still had time for studies. The O.R.L.L. should get a life.
Your name
Thu Oct 1 2009 16:57
How dare that news organizations mention something (in a way that requires very minimal effort) that will probably be of some interest to their audience! Gasp!
Ditto MJS
Thu Oct 1 2009 16:09
I identify with the line that says, "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)."

Thanks to the Daily for this editorial. When a friend from home sent me a link to the CNN article, I replied with a link to this editorial and he got my (our) point. In addition, his comment was: "That's an excellently-written article. I think that guy has a future." Good job, Daily.

Re: John Atsalis
Thu Oct 1 2009 15:24
John, don't think the daily sells online ads, though I could be wrong. They probably put it on the front page because the topic's gotten a LOT of attention.
JK Atsalis
Thu Oct 1 2009 13:57
I would like to note, and perhaps it is irony on the part of the Daily, this editorial is on the front page of www.tuftsdaily.com, which is not always true of Daily editorials.

Selling some of the sex yourselves, eh? Not that I have a problem with that...

PS
Thu Oct 1 2009 12:20
The competition for traffic on news websites is silly, when you think about it, since few (if any) news sites sell all of their page views/unique visitors anyway.

You'll see competing newspapers worrying about getting 2 million page views this month while their competitor got 2.1... despite the fact that neither of them sold more than 500,000. The Daily saw its traffic spike 300 percent; did it make even a cent off of that?

MJS
Thu Oct 1 2009 12:19
This is my favorite Daily editorial this year.

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