Does spam cause journalists to miss real e-mail?

A reporter at a major California newspaper e-mailed me Wednesday complaining that the paper’s reporters are “starting to lose their minds about the amount of spam they get.”

He’d run across my months-old post debating how reporters’ e-mail addresses should appear on article pages, which tangentially mentions protecting e-mail addresses on Web sites from spambots.

Although I use Javascript (and an image for non-script browsers) to obfuscate my personal e-mail address on this site, I originally decided not to at work. My reasoning then was that news organizations have an “obligation to make their addresses as public as possible.” All site visitors need to be able to read them, not just those with Javascript or graphical browsers. On this site, visitors in text-based browsers see not my actual address but a spambot-proof description of it — “My first name @ this site dot net.” I think news sites need to be more user-friendly than that, though, so I just used simple, unprotected mailto links at work.

That is about to change. This reporter’s complaints of ever-increasing spam jive with my experience at work, too. My sense is newspapers have always resisted spam-filtering software because it is so important not to accidentally delete even a few legitimate messages from the public. But with the volume of spam some accounts get now, humans are having more and more trouble isolating every last real message.

If journalists are now accidentally throwing away legitimate messages amid hundreds of spams, as I know I have done several times, e-mail’s utility to the newsgathering process is dramatically reduced. Are we going to see newspapers installing spam-filtering software, censoring messages sent by the public? Will even more news Web sites switch to unfriendly “type your message here” forms for feedback rather than giving out e-mail addresses? Unsolicited bulk e-mail increases all the time, and if spam rises another order of magnitude, would newspapers be better off just blocking all external e-mail?

It’s a shame I’m even asking that question. It’s a shame I’m about to decrease usability somewhat on the news site at work, making it harder to access reporters’ e-mail addresses. It’s a shame that selfish spammers are destroying such a useful tool for journalism.

Comment by Julie, posted November 1, 2003, 3:28 pm

I'd have to agree with a resounding YES, absolutely spammers cause journalists (and everyone really) to miss real e-mail. And yes it is a shame, but I'm just not convinced that it's primarily tied to spambots scraping their names from newspaper sites.

That's undoubtedly part of the problem, but I've found that editors whose e-mail addresses are on not listed anywhere on our site often get just as much if not more spam than reporters whose names are on hundreds of story pages.

I have no numbers backing me up but based purely on circumstantial observation and my own multiple-address tinkering, I believe the vast majority of spam comes about from giving e-mail addresses to the wrong people/sites. In my experience I've noticed that because reporters know their e-mail addresses are already very public, they give them out very liberally. They frequently use them for everything that they don't consider worthy of their personal e-mail address, thus hadning them over places where more Web savvy folks would give out their standard junk account.

I think part of the solution requires educating reporters on better use of their e-mail or even giving them a generic junk address at the paper to sign up for things as they do research, surf or whatever online.

Comment by thomas, posted December 4, 2003, 1:53 pm

one major backdraw to all technology-enhanced ways of protecting email-adresses on websites is the human factor: spam collectors can indeed be real humans - typing email adresses! i forgot the exact source for this, but it seems quite realistic to me.
and of course most email-adresses at a newspaper (just like at most other companies) can be guessed quite easily. so you just have to know the names (which you can find e.g. by every article) to know the email adresses.

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This page last modified on Sunday, January 15, 2006 at 7:56 pm