When big news stories evolve into tragedies and people are flocking to read the latest online, website design becomes the backdrop for grave information. And as Electronic Frontier Foundation activist Parker Higgins points out, you can tell a lot about how different sites react to tragic stories by checking out what's going on behind the scenes in their HTML.
You may not know anything about coding, but you can still see what's behind the websites you visit by using a tool called the element inspector. Most browsers, like Firefox and Chrome, let you hover your cursor over any part of a website and then "Inspect Element" to see the commands, components, and style sheets that underlie any part of the site.
With news breaking about Germanwings Flight 4U 9525 over the past couple of days, Higgins noticed that the New York Times had a line of code on its news story about the incident that read:
Basically, this shows an effort to monitor ad content and reduce ad intensity around a topic that was at first mysterious and then increasingly tragic. And when Higgins reached out to contacts at the Times, they confirmed that the site has a manual switch that can put individual articles in "sensitivity" mode. The settings seem to be either standard, "noads," or finally "tragedy," depending on the content of the story. In the case of Germanwings Flight 4U 9525, the Times eventually upgraded to tragedy.
Sources at sites like the Guardian told Higgins that they have similar measures in place so there isn't a dancing Geico newt competing with dire news.
Meanwhile, CNN's coverage of Flight 4U 9525 included an enormous home page banner that read "DELIBERATE" in a huge font. If you check the HTML, as Slate Director of Technology Doug Harris thought to, CNN calls this a "screaming banner" (see top image). There has even been evidence that services like Gmail reduce their ad load when messages contain trigger words like "suicide."
As Higgins writes, "It’s interesting in part because it’s almost an acknowledgement that ads are invasive and uncomfortable." The Internet is filled with lists of unfortunate ad placements, and the worst ones are probably upbeat ads intruding on solemn moments.
Update, March 26, 2015, 4:30 p.m.: A spokesperson confirmed that, like the New York Times, CNN Digital didn’t run ads on any of its videos related to Germanwings Flight 4U 9525. "In these types of tragedy cases, it’s an editorial decision that we make," she wrote.