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Sunday, March 20, 2016

Hogan, Gawker And The Problem With "Drawing Eyeballs"

The verdict announced in former pro wrestler Hulk Hogan's lawsuit against Gawker, in which a jury concluded that Gawker had indeed violated Hogan's right to privacy after Gawker published an excerpt of a sex tape involving himself and his former friend's wife, some questions have been raised about what this means for First Amendment rights.

As someone who has a background in journalism and written for newspapers for more than 20 years, I have sometimes asked myself the question as to where to draw the line regarding the responsibilities that come with freedom on the press. One of the questions that I think should be raised is whether or not something is truly newsworthy.

Gawker has gained a reputation for posting stories about various celebrities caught in embarassing situations or saying things that they probably shouldn't have said. There is a valid argument to be made that we all need to be held accountable for the things we say or do, particularly if those things have a direct impact on somebody else.

But does that really apply to the Hogan sex tape?

One doesn't have to look too far to find situations in which Hogan said or did something that he shouldn't have. A perfect example was when Hogan went on the Arsenio Hall show back in the early 1990s, proclaiming he had never used steroids. He contradicted those statements when he was called upon to testify during a trial in which WWE (then the World Wrestling Federation) President Vince McMahon was accused of distributing steroids. Hogan's admission gave enough evidence that Hogan was far from being this upstanding role model that he had portrayed during his height of popularity in the mid-to-late 1980s.

And while some may argue that allowing Hogan's right to privacy to trump Gawker's ability to publish something it can verify to be true, could mean Gawker could be shut down in a more serious matter, that doesn't mean Gawker should be allowed to do whatever it wants, any more than somebody claiming a right to privacy should be allowed to do whatever that person wants. An elected official who believes a transaction with a massive campaign donor should be kept private faces a higher standard: That elected official can shape policy that can affect many people and there is enough reason to believe the donor wants to influence that policy. Thus, there is a benefit to the greater good of society to make that transaction public and to hold the elected official and donor accountable.

But who exactly benefits from the release of the Hogan sex tape? If Gawker is honest, the only real benefit gained there is the ability to draw eyeballs to its website.

It's true that any publication, whether print or online, needs to draw readers in order to pay its bills, everyone who works for a publication needs to ask whether there is a greater benefit gained from releasing information and how that greater benefit will apply. Those who follow the mindset of only wanting to draw eyeballs, no matter the cost, may make questionable decisions and do more harm than good.

I have seen some good content from Gawker and the sites it oversees, but I believe the staff often falls into the trap of wanting to draw viewers at the expense of anything else. This means misleading headlines, useless information and material that is designed more to embarrass somebody than to hold them accountable populates the site. Gawker is not the only site to fall into these traps, but when it does fall into these traps, the staff needs to be held accountable, just like anyone else, be it a public official, a celebrity or a private citizen.

The temptation to "draw eyeballs" can be hard to resist, but those involved in any form of journalism must resist it if they want to be trusted to put out a product that truly informs people and serves the greater good. Those that only care about the number of viewers at the expense of everyone else become nothing more than gossip sites, drag down the quality of journalism and don't really provide a benefit beyond just "drawing eyeballs."

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