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Ethics in the metadata

There is a difficult choice that those seeking to popularise articles disagreeing with a certain use of language on ethical grounds can’t escape.

On April 30, I published an article discussing lapses in the media coverage of Eman Ahmed’s stint in India. Ahmed is an Egyptian woman who, until a day or so ago, had been undergoing treatment in Saifee Hospital, Mumbai, after a very rare genetic disorder had caused her body to quickly gain weight. As a result, she had been suffering from various disorders and neurological issues, and no doubt was mentally stressed as well. However, much of the Indian media sensationalised her condition and made a freak of her and presented her plight as a spectacle. Some reporters, as well as doctors, also resorted to language that – as one observer put it – dismissed Ahmed’s personhood and diminished her agency in all that was happening.

One of the two people I’d spoken to for the story, Rebecca Puhl, who studies the depiction of obesity in the media and its effects on those who produce and consume such content, provided some invaluable structure as well as perspectives that set up the story very well. Even if I couldn’t include all of the answers she’d provided to my questions in my piece, reading them alerted me to a range of issues and which I think also greatly, and usefully, limited my language and the story’s narrative. For example, it became clear that all the images used by articles on Ahmed in other outlets were unusable because (a) Puhl had highlighted how it was harmful to show people who were obese as just parts of their bodies, and most of the images fell prey to this mistake, and (b) there was no evidence of Ahmed or her family having granted permission for these images to be used.

So far so good. The problem arose when, at the time of publishing the article, I was careful to keep the headline, blurb and tags respectful of and sensitive to the content. This meant, for example, that I couldn’t mention either in the blurb or in the tags that Ahmed was being called “the world’s heaviest woman”. But without this phrase among the tags, the published article wouldn’t ‘rank’ on Google News – i.e. wouldn’t show up among the top five results – because this phrase is what most people were searching for on Google in order to get to content about Ahmed. Such ‘ranking’ is necessary if a story has to find widespread traction, more than Facebook or Twitter, the other major distribution channels, could provide. (Incidentally, the Facebook API also reads tags.) Since I also hadn’t included Ahmed’s image, the article’s natural discoverability had also been hampered.

So should I include the tag or shouldn’t I?

I did, eventually. And I’ve tried to reason my discomfort away saying I’ll be able to introduce a new, more sensitive way of thinking to a group of people who might not be aware of it this way.

The reasoning hasn’t worked yet. I’m not comfortable with this decision – as much as I’m uncomfortable with the fact that The System has forced me to make this decision in order for the story to be read. Conceivably, this difficult choice is inescapable for those seeking to popularise articles that disagree with a certain use of language on ethical grounds. On the other hand, the Google Empire is built on language, on its users employing this word or that in their searches, emails, conversations, etc. As a result, there is bound to be a clash when I, or someone else, refuses to use a certain phrase while Google is actively looking for, prioritising and monetising that phrase. This argument also applies to images: The Wire did not use an image of Eman Ahmed for the reasons specified above – but such images are exactly what catches people’s eyes when they’re scrolling down on Facebook or Twitter.

Then again, how much of this applies to the article’s body and how much to its metadata? I’m on the wall, even if others are likely to have taken sides. The article’s body will be read by humans and the metadata, by machines. So does it matter what the machines are reading as long as the humans are walking away with the right message? But seen another way, using unethical means to publicise content is surely more wrong, even if not absolutely wrong, than being completely ethical. What if the article shows up in the wrong contexts on the web? Also, is there any way one can walk away from these practices with a clean conscience? What’s the endgame going to be?

Featured image credit: Anemone123/pixabay.