By Aaron Bonner
In 2017, information is available in a matter of milliseconds, from cake recipes to a politician’s tax forms, but the availability of certain information has created privacy concerns for both journalists and readers.
With more news organizations shifting to an online readership, readers have begun to question the information gathered by each site. Cookies enabled on each site store information and analytics about each reader but sometimes provide location-based information and customer data to third parties.
Elizabeth Elkin, editor-in-chief for The Crimson White, said the student-run organization uses social media as well as Google Analytics to view what stories that readers are spending the most time reading and which redirect brought them to their website. While she and other staff members view this information, The Crimson White does not collect the same information that a publication such as The New York Times does with its readership.
“What I look for is what stories are getting clicked on the most and how people are bouncing from social media and our website,” she said. “I can look at how long someone stays on an article, but I’m not looking at who is going where.”
On The New York Times’ online privacy page, the organization lists the data it pulls from online browsers and from data knowingly given by its users. From subscription and survey data provided by customers to “non-personal information about the computer, mobile device or other device” used to access their website, the organization stores information about each person that views the site.
Elkin said that while The Crimson White does not collect this information, the organization regularly posts tweets and student-created content within the paper in a section of the paper about student activity and opinions.
“We pull from Instagram all the time, but we reach out to people first and we say ‘is it OK if we use your photo,’” Elkin said. “Usually people are excited to see themselves in the paper, because all I’ve ever heard from people is excitement or ‘oh, isn’t that funny that they pulled me,’ but I haven’t ever had anybody complain about the usage.”
While comments on The Crimson White’s website almost never see deletion, she said that privacy of the reporter is a top concern within the organization. After an online commenter targeting one of the paper’s columnists posted personal information and invitations to attack the writer on social media, Elkin stepped in to remove the offending comments.
However, this incident is not an isolated one. With journalists releasing opinions online amidst a culture trying to shift narratives and call out fake news, several writers for publications such as Jezebel and The Pacific Standard became targets in attacks known as doxxing.
“There are some websites that are getting into the market of publishing these details of people’s lives, like where they live and relatives’ names, and then the only way you can get that information removed is by contacting them,” said Scott Parrott, a professor at The University of Alabama’s Department of Journalism and Creative Media. “The way that you contact them is to go on their website, which generates advertising clicks for them, so it’s all a sham and a market, and there’s no real guarantee that the information will be removed.”
In his classes, Parrott goes hands-on with public records released online to show students how simple information gathering can be. For this reason, Parrott said that he has deactivated all social media to prevent some of his personal life from being readily available.
He said that in his time as a professor, he has observed the media habits of other teachers, noting that several avoid posting photos of children or their relationship status. While not a perfect solution, reviewing privacy settings on social media and posting less personal updates can often reduce the information readily available to those looking for it.
“If you use these things, just be thoughtful about how you use them,” he said. “We’re talking about the internet of things nowadays, where it’s not just a computer – it’s your television or even your coffee maker.”by