Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Self-Censorship Beyond Traditional Media

Ever since watching OUTFOXED: Rupert Murdoch's War on Journalism, I've been thinking about how much self-censorhsip occurs in the media -- especially online. Having witnessed some first hand, I have some experience with the tricky issue. Before I was Assistant Publisher at MacNN and for its associated sites, I wrote the news on a day-to-day basis. In writing news, I had moments where I censored my own writing, sometimes unprovoked.

As a website our revenue depends on our advertisers. Knowing this, I was always mindful in some ways not to unnecessarily run down our partners. Especially when writing about Apple, who I believe is our biggest advertiser, I avoided saying too many harsh things.

Now, in my case, I didn't avoid reporting negative news about Apple, but I avoided pushing the envelope when doing so. Negative stories often draw the most page views for us, so they often draw the most comments; in these comments I, and almost every writer since, received criticism for refusing to 'take it to Apple' for obvious mistakes.

As Assistant Publisher I have an inside look at many online practices. While MacNN and other sites I am involved with do not accept bribes for reviews, many websites receive free products or additional advertising offers in exchange for favourable reviews. Our reviews department requires disclosure about any deals or products received, but many do not.

It is a clear trend though that few reviewers around the internet give ratings less than 50% unless the product does not work at all. I would say that it is a safe bet that this is the case because these reviewers want to assure that they are given more deals in the future. These reviewers work in active self-censorship in order to achieve personal gains, which should be very concerning.

To say that there will ever be a truly free medium without pressures is naive to some extent, but I believe full disclosure is the best step to take. The internet is very unregulated right now and my site operators have an anything goes mentality. There is no way for regulation to occur without violating the promise of internet neutrality, so it requires good will on the part of many. Hopefully more websites choose to do this.