A Response to Paywalls During the Pandemic

They’re essential to keep many newspapers going in the digital age. But what happens when they prevent you from reading vital information, or when clickbait titles urgently require context in order to avoid dangerously misleading the public?

As someone who relies heavily on the Apple News app to keep informed, seeing the Apple News+ logo under stories I’d like to read has always aggravated me. I’m not critical of the choice to paywall articles as a whole, though – like I say, for the most part, it’s fundamental to the survival of the newspaper itself.

Still, I feel like it’s problematic when articles like “How to self‑isolate: coronavirus advice and tips for over‑70s” can’t be accessed without a subscription. Especially since we now know that people who need to shield have found this particularly challenging. So without a paywall, the article (published in late March) might’ve been able to help those that really needed it.

But, okay, I guess the really important information about that can be found on the NHS website. If there’s a few extra tips in the article, it’s not so bad to miss out on them. I’m not sure the same can be said about one like this, though;

I guess a quick Google will again take you to pages with the relevant medical information. But how likely are people to actually Google something like this if the title seems to tell you everything you need to know? It’s not necessarily true, either, that people will find the correct information even if they do try to research the topic.

Prostate Cancer UK has a page which discusses “Dairy heavy diet linked to prostate cancer risk“, but this trustworthy source doesn’t even make it into Google’s top three search results. Instead, you’ll find a Healthline article before it which directly contradicts what is said on the charity’s website;

“Eating or drinking lots of dairy products, such as milk, yoghurt and cheese, might increase your risk of prostate cancer […] Dairy alternatives with added calcium, such as soya yoghurt or soya milk, also count as dairy foods.” – Prostate Cancer UK

“No studies have found a link between soymilk and increased risk for prostate cancer. In fact, the opposite may be true.” – Healthline

So it’s pretty obvious that paywalls have always had their issues. But in the midst of a global emergency, the dangers they pose are clearer than ever. For example, “Stay-at-home message was slightly too successful, says leading academic” was a title that made it onto the homepage of Apple News in May.

It was shockingly ambiguous at the time, as it seemed to imply that we shouldn’t be following government advice and should instead be spending more time outdoors. Of course it’s not so shocking now, thanks to the Stay Alert slogan making vagueness government-sanctioned.

And sure, a bit more context is given if you were to search up the article on the paper’s own website. But we’ve all seen those diagrams of the effect that ignoring lockdown rules can have. Just one person misinterpreting that title would’ve been enough to put their community in danger.

All in all, it feels like the health of the population was pretty low on the list of priorities for our government and The Times. And it was for the same reason that it always is – money.

For the government, it was the economy which came first. For The Times, I presume, it was clicks. And a hope that subscriptions might increase. In both cases, I just cannot accept the idea that money should take priority over people’s lives.

Of course, online newspapers are having a difficult time of it at the moment. But even if they are going through financial difficulties, it’s not a good idea to be using clickbait at a time when clear messaging is essential (even if the government itself failed in that regard).

I’m not saying that we should be ridding the news cycle of paywalls during the pandemic – just that we need to be wording things wisely.

Words have power. They have power over people’s lives, now more than ever. They need to be used carefully.

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