More journalists are taking sides today over whether an "N" rating should be applied to online news sites in order to skirt technology that blocks violent, sexual, and crude content.
A group of news services and online companies known as the Internet Content Coalition is in discussions now over who should be able to use the label, which was designed to exempt news stores from technical filters and censors intended to shield children from pornography and other adult material.
The group itself is fueling controversy, as many who weren't invited to the discussion wonder what self-regulatory rules, if any, the group will draft to define an online news site.
Now that the Communications Decency Act has been deemed unconstitutional, online content providers are under the gun to keep kids out of the Net's red-light districts or possibly face another federal law.
Rating systems are a solution being pushed from high places. Last month, President Clinton endorsed the use of Recreational Software Advisory Council's (RSACi) system, which allows sites to rate their content on a scale of one to ten for nudity and foul language. Journalistic sites would simply apply the news label. Browsers read the tags and block sites based on a users' settings.
Today, two journalists who are participating in the ICC offered a glimpse of what directions the group could take. Neil Budde, editor of the Wall Street Journal, and Owen Youngman, director of interactive media for the Chicago Tribune, published their views on the Newspaper Association of America's Web site.
"One option is to establish criteria that are open enough to allow any site to declare itself a news site. In the end, that may be self-defeating," Budde's post states. "If a parent sets the filter to allow news sites to be viewed and then regularly stumbles upon objectionable material on sites with the news label, we may find that the filter for news sites is being turned off with greater frequency. That would put news sites back in the current bind--being excluded by the software."
But he later added in a interview: "The only way that this will fly, and that news organizations will play along, is if it's totally a self-described rating."
Youngman said the answer to the question of "when and where" news should be labeled is "when it is in the customer's interest for a label to exist--say, when it gives a prominent spot on the newsstand to that customer's preferred source of information." News should also be labeled "where it can help the customer make an informed or empowered decision--say, inside the newsstand, er, browser."
He added that he would never support online news being defined, rated, or labeled but noted that the industry has a tendency to define itself anyway. "I know we all are defining ourselves as 'news sites' every day. It is what we have to do in order to continue to exist as newspapers."
Some say the ICC doesn't include enough journalists; for example Sony and Prodigy are members. Skeptics also worry that the group's decision will become a de facto standard set by too small a group.
"I support journalists discussing this issue. But I think the group that is doing this right now is too small and doesn't represent journalism in the United States, online or otherwise," said Steve Geimann, president of the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ). The SPJ has a task force on online journalism but has not been invited to join the ICC.
The ICC was organized in part by representatives from MIT and The WELL. The group also includes Playboy Enterprises, NBC, the New York Times, and CNET (publisher of NEWS.COM).