Friday, February 15, 2008

Story Marred by Tainted Source

Three reporters were recently freed from their desks to investigate how accessible porn sites are to county library patrons in DeSoto, Charlotte and Hardee. The result is Tom Staik's splashy feature on this morning’s front page describing systems that restrict children’s Internet access while allowing unfiltered access to adults. It’s an interesting story that found some local glitches. While OWW has many thoughts about how censorship is carried out, she’s more interested in the quality and accuracy of news reporting. In this respect, the article falls short of the mark because the reporters hype a rather bland story (there's no news hook*), chock full of fuzzy numbers aggregated by a Web-based product sales site instead of going to the trouble to locate reliable data from more objective, less biased sources.

The newspaper’s “investigation” leads with supposedly national figures to create a proper level of hysteria: There’s a $100-billion porn industry out there and an “average child” will have an “Internet porn experience” by age 11. “More than” $180,000 is spent on erotica every minute (in the world? In the U.S? in New Jersey?). In any given second, some 30,000 computer users are allegedly accessing adult content on the Internet, and 372 Internet users are typing “adult search terms” into search engines (breast feeding? Gonad development in asexual fruit flies?). None of this leading information carries any attribution -- and none of it is made relevant to the local findings.

More than 60 inches and some 45 paragraphs later, three investigative reporters invoke a single Web site just before unfolding more statistics. The Web site is “Family Safe Media,” www. A visit to Family Safe’s site finds not a thoughtful think tank funding well-designed studies and surveys. It’s a sales site, promoting a score of Internet blocking devices. This is the Web site’s description of itself: “Our web site is organized by media type. Browse through each section and find the tools your family needs to reduce influences that are not in line with your beliefs. Most likely, you will find products that you didn't even know where available. Also, let us know what type of product you need. We are dedicated to developing products and services that help parents control the content in their home.”

In the service of its sales pitch, the Web page reproduces cartoonish graphs that purport to illustrate pornography’s reach and range. The writers boast their data sources are “sited” at the bottom of the page. The citations turn out to be an alphabetical compilation of 46 sources (separated from any one data set) that include Yahoo, Associated Press, Miami Herald, something called the U.S. Central Bureau (I think they mean the U.S. Census Bureau), China Daily and others that you can evaluate for yourself.

This is an example of 10th-grade-level research OWW used to endure: “Hey, I found the perfect source -- an article that says exactly everything I need!” That’s not so bad for 10th graders; it’s a shame for grown-up journalists who, in theory at least, have been trained to evaluate sources and exercise skepticism about using ones tainted by a sales agenda and profit motive.

And, in a final non sequitur that has me wondering, the local feature wraps up not with insight or inspiration from a librarian, libertarian or even a mom, but with an examination of women's porn-viewing habits – all copied directly from Family Safe’s sales page. What’s the relevance of “Thirteen percent of women are estimated to visit pornography Web sites at work” to a story about access and filterning in county libraries?

And one last thing:
"The fact that a Sun staffer was unable to access pornography at Arcadia's DeSoto County Library may be a fluke, library officals noted." Huh?

*It lacks a news hook because there's no new study just released, no one is picketing local libraries, no letters to the editor have complained about the current system, no policies have changed or are being considered for revision. The whole thing is a made up feature, good practice for journalism's sandbox set, but really, of little or no news value.

1 comment:

  1. "Investigation."

    I wonder if this Web site will start advertising in the Sun now?