Shoptalk: Why Journalists Need to Stand Up for Reader Privacy

By: Josh Stearns

Reader Privacy

According to new research out of the University of Pennsylvania (, visiting news websites exposes you to more than twice as much tracking software as the rest of the Web.

Researchers Tim Libert and Victor Pickard used open-source software to analyze Alexa’s top 100,000 websites, 2,000 of which were news-related. “A visitor to The New York Times’ homepage is potentially connected to a whopping 44 third-party servers,” the researchers reported, “while visitors to the Los Angeles Times’ website get their browsing history leaked to 32 external servers.”

Based on my own analysis of news websites (, those numbers actually seem low. I’ve regularly seen between 60 and 80 trackers on news websites. This impacts how fast news sites load, how much data it takes to view them and it exposes readers to privacy risks.

Last year, The Economist notified their readers that a prominent ad-blocker blocker called Pagefair had exposed them to malware. The Economist was one of about 500 publishers affected by the breach. Last February, hackers used ads on Forbes’ website to distribute malware. Forrester Research predicts that 2016 could be a tipping point for online privacy, with more people than ever demanding greater protections from the apps and services they use.

This isn’t just a business issue, it is an ethical issue about how we relate to the communities we serve. In a July post at the Columbia Journalism Review, the executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists, Joel Simon, argued that “news organizations don’t worry enough” about reader privacy.

“In an era when electronic spycraft is rampant,” he writes, “people who go to a website looking for news can unwittingly endanger themselves just by clicking on a story or video.”

In November, The Intercept and analytics firm collaborated to create a custom metrics platform that prioritizes user privacy. Ryan Tate and Betsy Reed of The Intercept wrote in a blog post (, “Modern analytics tools virtually always come from outside vendors who become intimate third parties in the relationship between publishers and readers. It was important to us to try and rebalance this relationship in favor of the reader.”

This new system was just one of a series of pro-privacy procedures the newsroom has implemented. The Intercept was an early leader in protecting their readers by using HTTPS Web connections — which gives readers protection from having their reading habits spied on.  The Marshall Project, ProPublica and TechDirt also encrypt their sites and the Washington Post encrypts some parts of its site. However, few other news organizations seem to have made the move, despite the fact that HTTPS is standard for most large tech companies, like Google and Facebook.

The Intercept made a point of noting that they would respect any reader’s use of Do Not Track, a software built into Web browsers that is supposed to help protect user privacy. Last year, Medium worked with the Electronic Frontier Foundation to align their privacy policy with EFF’s best practices. This fall, EFF unveiled a code of conduct for publishers based in part on their experiments with Medium.

The problem is, for the most part, news organizations themselves aren’t collecting that much data. Most of the data collection that happens on news websites happens by third parties, such as ad networks, analytics firms and social plug-ins. News organizations aren’t so much collecting data as being vehicles for data collection.

News organizations acknowledge how valuable data about their readers is, but then give most of that value away. In so doing, they have also largely abdicated control over, and responsibility for, how that data is used.

Jeff Jarvis, director of the CUNY Tow Knight Center for Entrepreneurial Journalism, argues that newsrooms have to seek another path. Right now, Jarvis says, news organizations “creep out their own customers by collecting data on them without being open about it, without revealing the reason and the benefits (free content! less noise!).” If publishers were collecting data themselves, they could use it to build stronger relationships with readers, serve their community better, and build trust by giving readers more control over how that data is used.

The debate over ad-blockers has brought reader privacy and control back to the fore and highlighted the risks of not addressing this issue more openly with readers. In the absence of transparency and engagement from publishers, people are turning to ad-blockers to regain some amount of control.

Josh Stearns is the director of Journalism and Sustainability at the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation. Prior to that, he spent seven years as press freedom director for Free Press.

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Published: February 12, 2016


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