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ivoh | September 21, 2017

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News organizations turn off ads on stories about the Germanwings plane crash

News organizations turn off ads on stories about the Germanwings plane crash

There’s been some interesting buzz this week about how news sites handle ads on tragic stories. The New York Times is among the news sites that deliberately hide ads on tragic stories to avoid seeming insensitive.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation’s Parker Higgins recently drew attention to this after reading a Times story about the Germanwings plane crash. While looking at the HMTL source for the story, he noticed that ads had been turned off.  

Higgens writes:

“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.”

The Times later confirmed that it does turn off ads on stories about tragedies. CNN has also turned off ads on its videos about the plane crash. “In these types of tragedy cases, it’s an editorial decision that we make,” a CNN spokesperson told Slate. The Guardian takes a similar approach to ads.

There’s value in turning off ads, which can often be distracting and completely unrelated to the story at hand. The Nieman Journalism Lab explained:

“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.”

Ultimately, removing ads from tragic stories is a small step that can make a big difference.