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Responsibility and privacy in the press

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I anticipate to the reader that this article is not directly about SEO. This is an analysis of the responsibilities of media outlets and how they have been dealing with users’ privacy.

If you want to skip this reading, I recommend the previous article that offers 10 SEO tips to increase your audience.

What is responsibility

Look in dictionaries for the meaning of “responsibility” and you will find definitions, with slight variations, similar to these:

Liability is the duty to commit something or someone so as to be answerable for any effects

A moral, legal, or professional obligation to be accountable for one’s own actions in connection with the fulfillment of certain laws, duties, or functions.

Obligation to be accountable for one’s own acts or for those of a subordinate.

I like the latter because it presents responsibility as the obligation to be accountable for something, even if one is not directly the cause of the act.

Corporate Responsibility

Every entrepreneur knows that he or she has responsibilities to the company, eventual shareholders, employees, and customers. If something goes wrong, it is your responsibility.

A company that causes pollution, mistreats animals, or does not adopt an anti-racist stance is held responsible for this. Today, more than ever, society monitors the performance of companies on a daily basis, especially on social networks, to know if they are acting in a correct, ethical, and responsible manner.

The organization that adopts a wrong attitude or allows a supplier or employee to do something wrong is promptly condemned in the eyes of society. Consumers no longer want to buy from companies that use slave or child labor in the manufacture of their products. Many people no longer accept to work for companies that do not take a stand for diversity.

But, do people demand accountability from the media outlets? Too little! And when they do, they are ignored or countered with speeches in favor of the press.

Responsibility of the media outlets

Now, if companies are responsible for what they produce and for the acts of their employees, why should it be any different with the press? But it is.

Media outlets have for many years treated consumers irresponsibly, shirking their responsibility to deliver quality products in an ethical manner.

Unlike companies, which when confronted by the public seek changes to ensure their survival, newspapers defend their position and refuse to improve. They use excuses and claim that it is not up to them to solve the problems, even if they are the cause.

“Attack on freedom of the press”

An excuse often used by the media is that criticizing the press is unacceptable. A politician, company, or citizen who criticizes a newspaper is promoting attacks on the freedom of the press, they claim.

Look at it this way: if your newspaper writes garbage after garbage, the public has complete freedom to say what they think about it.

Attacking the freedom of the press is a very serious thing, but we need to know how to label things.

These are examples of an attack on the freedom of the press:

  • Journalists being arrested in the exercise of their profession;
  • Government censorship;
  • Assault and death threats to journalists;
  • Invest through disinformation against the press.

It is not an attack on the freedom of the press:

  • Fierce competition for audience, subscribers, and advertisers;
  • Media vehicles having to develop new products to stay relevant;
  • Having to find other ways to make the business profitable;
  • Lack of reader confidence in your newspaper;
  • To be criticized for what you write and how you write it.

Competition has always been good for business. Trade relations and the economy have only come so far thanks to competition. In the press, however, this competition ceased to exist many years ago. Few vehicles have dominated content production and dissemination for decades and have lost focus of who the customer really is.

In Brazil, for example, we have half a dozen (if that many) communication groups that dominate newspapers, radio, and television. They did not need, for many years, to worry about the content that was produced because they had no competition.

His customers were not the readers, listeners, and viewers. Its customers were advertisers, government agencies and companies (mostly large conglomerates).

The press simply did not need to hear from the public because the public was not important. Citizens had nowhere else to turn and depended exclusively on these few groups to satisfy their needs for information and entertainment.

The press has shirked its responsibility to produce content that is relevant, informative, and useful to the population for years, and now it will have to catch up if it wants to stand on its own two feet.

Read also: Objectivity and journalistic perspective

New monetization model

In the last ten years the press has seen its revenue evaporate. The model that gave much return during the 80s and 90s, through advertising, is no longer a model that will ensure survival over the next ten years. Power360 has an article that talks a bit about the drop in circulation (print and digital) in recent years.

And the press itself was responsible for this! Newspapers bet on an advertising-based monetization model and forgot to produce relevant content. Much of the content was published for free for maximum exposure, after all advertising revenue was what mattered.

Newspapers spent years teaching people that money was nothing to worry about, that scale was everything, that advertising was plentiful, and that people should get whatever they wanted for free (even if it was of low quality).

Then came the big technology companies, focused on reaching as many people as possible using the money injected by their investors, and of course giving “everything” away for free.

Next it was the turn of streaming services, which also undermined television revenues.

Guess where the advertising money migrated to?

Read also: Why newspapers should not give free news during crises?

Privacy: A New Currency

I have talked a lot about responsibility and I think you get my point. Now we will see how the press is (not) preparing for the future.

If in the past the press “shrugged its shoulders” and said that it could not do anything, that it was not its responsibility, today it must put itself in a position to assume this responsibility.

Data protection laws in Europe (GDPR), USA (CCPA – California), and more recently in Brazil (LGPD) are requiring vehicles to take more responsibility, especially for user data and privacy.

A recent survey of 1,000 American citizens revealed(PDF of the full survey):

  • 91% of respondents believe that companies should be responsible for any data collected. To put this in media terms, it means that people believe that it is you as the newspaper that is responsible for everything that third parties do with the data collected through your site;
  • 84% said they wanted state legislation to give consumers control over their data;
  • 91% wanted the right to delete their data and to know where and how their data was being used (just like in GDPR in Europe);
  • 56% said that companies should prioritize giving consumers privacy. This means that newspapers should act around privacy instead of asking people to give it up, as is done in most cases;
  • 87% said that data privacy is a human right.

In Brazil, a survey indicated that 74% of Brazilians have already tried to delete personal data from the Internet and social networks.

The point I am getting at is: the media can no longer turn away from the real world and think that its model of twenty years ago will guarantee its future existence. The press cannot continue to treat the user with disrespect. It must pay attention to what the consumer is asking, just as other companies do.

Read also: Let’s ban targeted advertising!

Privacy in large vehicles

I challenge the esteemed reader to browse through the major media outlets and find one that is taking user privacy seriously. I would venture to say that there are very few cases, and those that do, do so because of the imposition of regulatory laws and not because they really care about the user.

Let’s take the case of Folha de São Paulo (it could be any other, it is very easy to find cases like this). Folha is one of the most traditional communication vehicles in Brazil (since 1921) and offers, as soon as you enter its website, a big “f…-se”.

Folha de São Paulo cookie consent box
Folha de São Paulo cookie consent box

The text for consent is as follows (emphasis mine):“Folha uses cookies and similar technologies, as explained in our Privacy Policy, to recommend content and advertising. By browsing our content, the user accepts such conditions.

A big “f—ing”. If you want to browse you are agreeing. No opt-out.

Oh, and if you want to see the privacy policy (without any possibility to customize what information you want to allow), you will find a document of about 7 pages (if printed) of not so clear terms and conditions. Pearls of the sort (emphasis mine): “Folha is not responsible for the content, commercial conditions, and fulfillment of any offer, advertising, or publicity posted on its websites.” or “Folha will use all necessary means to protect the confidentiality, integrity, and availability of users’ personal data. The information will be incorporated into Folha’s database and will be stored at Folha’s headquarters, restricted to its employees and authorized persons only.“which is followed by “The user’s data will never be transferred by Folha to third parties, other than partners or companies hired for the purposes set forth in this document, without the user’s prior authorization

A big “f—ing” in the user’s face. Like“We are not responsible for anything and it could be that your data will get into the hands of anyone“.

Oh, and of course, if you look more closely, you will see a significant amount of trackers that obtain data from your browsing with your “implicit permission.”

Tracking of Folha de São Paulo scripts
Tracking of Folha de São Paulo scripts

Oops, and look how cool it is! You do not have the option to control the use of cookies on the site, so you decide to use a tracking and advertising blocker (an adblocker). However, they carry trackers designed to bypass the blockers and still capture your data. Very ethical and responsible…

Tracking of Folha de São Paulo scripts

Other vehicles do not let this happen; G1 also uses many third-party cookies:

G1 Script Tracking

So does the Estadão:

Estadão Script Tracking

Both with generic terms in their privacy policies and the imposition of consent.

Another excuse…

After the “attack on freedom of the press,” the press has found a new excuse to give when asked about user privacy.

“It’s the fault of Google, Facebook, etc.”

The vehicles claim that the ones responsible for the lack of privacy are the big tech companies like Google, Facebook and ad techs.


It is funny to see articles and opinions from columnists bad-mouthing the big techs when their papers do much more damage to the users’ privacy.

It’s all the newspapers’ fault!

Log into the Google, Facebook, or Amazon website and see if any third-party scripting or tracking is loaded. Obviously not. These large technology companies grow thanks to their own tracking, subscription and advertising systems.

Google, YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, Amazon, TikTok etc., none of them are doing what newspapers do. Think about it.

Publishers are constantly trying to change the rules of the game with Google by asking for more flexibility in the technology employed in the advertising systems. They are not concerned about giving users more privacy, they just want to increase their revenues.

The future is not uncertain

The newspaper industry must find ways to improve its advertising without compromising user privacy. It is the responsibility of the press, as well as all companies, to ensure that the user’s desire to maintain their privacy is respected.

The change is only not happening faster because newspapers are not being pressured into it, yet. Journalists have their salaries paid by advertising revenue but soon this should change. Consumers are finding ways to avoid exposing their privacy to disrespectful, often paid, vehicles to fulfill their entertainment and information needs.

It would be interesting to see newspapers writing about how they hurt privacy the same way they write when Facebook does something wrong. In general we will not see this, but those vehicles that take a pro-user stance have seen their subscriptions and revenue increase.

The press needs to listen to its consumers if it wants to survive the next few years.

Continue reading: The age of browsers in digital

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