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Media and the sleaze factor

The Internet continues to attract record numbers as established companies make it more commercial and "safe." But well over a year after the Net went mainstream, negative perceptions persist.

"Internet attracting sexual predators, experts say," blared a headline carried by an online news service atop a story about a woman who was killed by a man she met through the Internet.

The story really wasn't about sexual predators flocking the Net; it merely explained the single incident in a straightforward, factual manner. But the headline was as typical as it was sensational.

The Net continues to attract record numbers of new users. And established media companies and other businesses are making the Web more commercial and, therefore, "safer." Nevertheless, well over a year after the Net went mainstream, negative perceptions about the Internet persist.

Many traditional news organizations have taken a simplistic and sensational approach when characterizing cyberspace, a flaw that results from journalists not fully understanding a complicated subject. Newspapers and television stations tend to focus on stories that link the Internet to pedophiles, bomb making, pornography, and other negative events--perpetuating the Internet's pejorative reputation.

Why? Because they get attention, according to some online activists. "There's been a tremendous backlash against the Net over the past year because negative stories play better than positives ones," said Declan McCullagh, an online activist who runs the Fight Censorship newsgroup. "There is a lack of knowledge about the Net from both legislators and the media, and they don't know how to deal with it."

But McCullagh and others believe that this will pass as Internet usage becomes more common, giving people the opportunity to judge it for themselves. Once they recognize the value and potential of the Net, they say, the positive headlines will drown out the screaming ones.

Marty Garte, assistant dean of journalism at the University of California at Berkeley, adds that it takes time to understand the "terrific mess" on the Net. But 500,000 people go online every month, she said, and once they recognize the Net's potential, "they won't pay attention to screaming headlines."

Besides, many point out, the potential dangers of the Internet are no different from those of everyday life. "The Internet is full of perverts and dangerous people, but the world is full of perverts and dangerous people," said Alvin Cooper, director of the San Jose Marital and Sexuality Center and columnist on sex and the Internet.

Law enforcement authorities agree. While the public has a right to know that predators and danger exist on the Net, it's nothing new, says Nick Battaglia, sergeant at the San Jose Police Department.

"The biggest problem is that people have a false sense of security online; it's not like sitting in a park," he said. "It's going to take time to get people to get rid of the false sense of security, but they shouldn't be scared, they should be aware."

Still, "cyberphobia" continues. Even advice columnist Ann Landers, who traditionally has reflected the mores of middle America, warns her readers about the dangers she believes are "lurking in cyberspace."

Landers claims she receives about 50 to 75 letters a week from women and men who need advice about plans to leave their significant others for someone they met online.

"The Internet is tailor-made for con men, the lonely, and the bored. The word from here is beware," she told the Los Angles Times in July.

Landers reported that she has been in cyberspace only once--and that, she said, was more than enough.

"I know what's out there because readers are telling me," she said. "I don't have to have a computer to know what's out there. I'm warning my readers that some of the things going on out there are dangerous."