In 2006, Time’s “Person of the Year” was you. Yes, you — the person reading these words right now. The reason for this award was not so much for what you did, but what you could do. With blogs becoming ever more prevalent, along with personalized websites like MySpace and Facebook, you can share your life and your opinions just as fast as your bandwidth will carry you. You can be a star. Even if you don’t want to be one.
Allison Stokke is a high school student and track athlete at Newport Harbor High School in California. Actually, you might have heard of her. Lately her name has been one of the top searches on the internet, after a hardly-risque photo of her at a track competition was posted on a popular sports blog. Within days, according to an amazing story by the Washington Post’s Eli Saslow, her picture had been searched for over 100,000 times. Now she reads lurid fantasies about herself on internet bulletin boards and fears for her safety. And all she ever did was compete in high school athletics like millions of other kids in this country.
Saslow’s disturbing story of Stokke’s run-in with the new era of media may be “old news” after appearing in the Post’s May 29 edition, but the ethical questions pertaining to new methods of information sharing are worth looking at with more scrutiny.
If you had muttered the word “blogosphere” five years ago, people in your vicinity would have either responded with “God bless you” or tried to wash your mouth out with soap. Today, blogs appear to be the wave of the future for print media — an equalizer for journalists trying to keep up with 24-hour news channels like CNN, Fox News and MSNBC. The Post, like many other newspapers, has made blogs a standard feature for its sports beat writers and prominently hypes the ever-entertaining, if not always hard-hitting D.C. Sports Bog with Dan Steinberg.
Readers devour ramblings, rumors and musings, and soon items, like Stokke’s photo, are spread to other blogs or bulletin boards across the internet. One second, an item is a blurb on a coffee-stained notepad, transcribed while “Oprah” blares in the background, or a simple stray thought typed out while wearing a bath towel. The next second, it’s available to the world.
It’s amazing, this rapid spread of information and opinions, the ease of expression to an audience potentially as vast as the World Wide Web. This is the freedom of the new era of media — a freedom that has stripped Stokke of hers.
Stokke’s life changed through no fault, nor action of her own. It’s no wonder that she feels that her body was “stolen and turned into a public commodity,” as the article states.
We could talk about how our society has trained us to sexualize female athletes — from the LPGA’s plan to gussy up its players to the appearance of Anna Kournikova in the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue centerfold or Amanda Beard’s pictorial in Playboy — but let’s keep the discussion on the media’s new frontier.
The cause of Stokke’s dilemma was a photo taken by a photographer at a track meet and placed on a prep athletic website. The result is Stokke’s reluctance to leave her house by herself and her father’s constant vigilance, scanning lewd posts about his daughter and searching for potential stalkers. In between is the headline-hungry blogosphere that often values web traffic over accuracy or ethics.
So how do we curb this trend and spare others from Stokke’s fate?
Should we, as members of actual media organizations take the initiative? Should photos that could even possibly be seen as provocative be censored? Should sports editors only allow photos of young athletes wearing long sleeved jerseys of muted colors, mindful that a slew of perverts lurks, just waiting to welcome these women to their fantasies?
Should sites, like the one that posted Stokke’s photo, be restrained? Or would such censorship be viewed as a violation of free speech?
Or do we just muster our best Humphrey-Bogart, world-weary look and tell Ms. Stokke, and any others like her, that this plight is just a symptom of the times? Sorry, kid. Get used to it.
As the world continues to spread information and opinions, both beneficial and damaging, faster than ever before, this is one issue that must be addressed.
Bloggers employed by media organizations, like the Post, have some accountability. If they post fictions or cross the line of decency, they can lose their jobs. An independent blogger has no such threat to their free reign. Maybe there should be.
Service providers, blogging domains, someone should hold these authors accountable for their actions. It simply should not be that the work of a few seconds becomes someone’s curse for a lifetime.