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March 30, 2015, 9:30 a.m.
Reporting & Production

An ad blocker for tragedies: How news sites handle content around sensitive stories

For stories like the Germanwings plane crash, The New York Times and many other publishers flip a switch to remove ads to avoid unwanted connections.

Reading The New York Times’ lead story on the crash of the Germanwings flight in the mountains of southeastern France, you might not notice what’s different about the page at first. But if you clicked on to a story about the BBC sacking Top Gear host Jeremy Clarkson, the difference becomes clear: The story about the fired Brit has ads, and the one about the plane crash doesn’t.

This is not a coincidence. Media companies — the Times and others — have built tools and strategies to hide ads on stories of tragedy in order to keep unfortunate or insensitive ads from running along side the news.

Parker Higgins, an activist at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, first caught the code responsible for putting ads behind the Times’ curtain:

I was looking at the HTML source of a recent New York Times story about a tragic plane accident—150 people feared dead—and noticed this meta tag in its head:

<meta property="ad_sensitivity" content="noads" />

There are no Google results for the tag, so it looks like it hasn’t been documented, but it seems like a pretty low-tech way to keep possibly insensitive ads off a very sensitive story—an admirable effort. It’s interesting in part because it’s almost an acknowledgement that ads are invasive and uncomfortable.

Higgins’ discovery was confirmed by former and current staffers of the Times, but developers and technologists from other news organizations confirmed the paper wasn’t alone. This particular thread on Hacker News has a number of examples from other news sites with similar tools for hiding ads.

In an email, Times spokeswoman Eileen Murphy said it’s a fairly simple process for editors, selecting a field in the paper’s CMS to make ads disappear on certain stories. The decision on what stories are sensitive enough to remove ads is made in the newsroom, Murphy said.

Being a media company means unfortunate ad adjacencies are going to be a part of business. When companies hand over their money to get their messages displayed against your content, they’re also risking their products winding up in the wrong place at the wrong time.

In print, the consequences can be more lasting, as a mistake is stuck in time for at least 24 hours. Online, the potential for problems increases with remnant ads, which can go from being annoying to offensive depending on the story.

Considering that advertising is still the main source of revenue for most news organizations, the decision to put those brands on ice can have consequences. But it’s a move in the direction not just of sensitivity, but also improved readability. When tragic stories happen it can be too easy to cause a kind of proximity dissonance in readers just through the normal design of an article page. This is a problem that many news sites have to balance, as readers are regularly confronted with headlines that alternate between the horrible and the quotidian.

As former Nieman Lab staff writer Megan Garber wrote at The Atlantic in 2012 about BuzzFeed’s coverage of the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School:

But it’s hard not to see “Dead/Shooting/School” next to “LOL/OMG/WTF” without cringing just a little bit. Principles and logic and everything else notwithstanding. News may be varied — and human experience may be varied — but there are occasions when it’s nice not to be reminded of the confluence. Presented a story that buckles under the weight of its own senseless tragedy, it’s disconcerting to see its summary surrounded by naked dudes and meme-y cats and an icon informing you that BuzzFeed’s take on the tragedy is “now buzzing.”

That’s something BuzzFeed has tried to address, specifically in the demarkation between BuzzFeed News and what it calls BuzzTeam or BuzzFeed Life. The LOLs are gone on stories of tragedy, but the distinctive BuzzFeed voice and style lives on in its headlines, teasers, and navigation.

Lisa Tozzi, news director for BuzzFeed News, told me over email they have a similar toggle switch in their CMS that removes the related content bar on stories they deem sensitive. “It’s a judgment call the editors and reporters make depending on the story. Usually stories about death and violence get flagged as sensitive,” she wrote.

So compare their main piece on the Germanwings crash (no sidebar, no “People Try Lunchables For The First Time” promo) with Ruby Cramer’s dive into Hillary Clinton’s new fundraising machine (all of the above).

Deciding what stories meet the criteria for extra sensitivity isn’t always an easy call, especially as news evolves over several cycles, according to Mike Toppo, vice president and senior editorial director for CNN Digital. CNN employs a similar system for removing preroll ads off videos for sensitive stories or gruesome footage. In events like the plane crash, staff will go into their CMS and make sure all videos related to the story are ad-free.

But that can change as stories progress, Toppo said, as the content you create around an event continues to evolve. Is a discussion between reporters and analysts about flight safety the same as airing footage of the wreckage? “The news cycle can go on for days, depending on what the story is,” he said.

Photo of empty billboards by Ariel Dovas used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     March 30, 2015, 9:30 a.m.
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