Google News In Review: Sept. 14 through Sept. 21

By Bob Dorn

A snapshot of the news featured by Google, the world’s leading aggregator, and what it left out.

When it’s at its very best, the news industry offers our eyes and ears reason to hope that we can find a voice that speaks like our own.

When I hear a presidential candidate say that half the country is comprised of “moochers” who are “dependent” on government to provide them the basic necessities of life, I should be able to hear or read an alternative position — something like this, for example: Professional politicians now are saying money is the mark of godliness, and the more of it they have the nearer to God (or the presidency, depending on which you think is more important) they become.

Last week, Mitt Romney and some of his supporters gave us the one view; no publication featured in Google News gave us the other.

Let’s go now to eight days of Google News that started on Sept. 14 with Coptic Christians in Los Angeles hiring a soft-core porn director to produce “Innocence of Muslims,” a video defiling Muhammad, calling the prophet a pedophile, thief, homosexual and womanizer, and causing some in the Muslim/Arab world to erupt in a killing spree that took the life of a promising American diplomat. The week ended on Sept. 21 with 19 dead and a totally new Presidential race — despite what is described by CBS and Business Week as a “dead heat,” which is what they’ve been reporting since the Romnoid beat the other Republican posers months ago.

Google’s cloud-inhabiting editors seemed to have struggled to present all the news — not just the war-making Islamic religionists and the provoking YouTube (owned by Google) video, or the strange misspeaking of Romney and the contradictions in the polls.  It might have been impossible. But then again, they didn’t struggle hard enough.

Important developments were missed, like the Pope’s visit to Lebanon in an attempt to calm the Mideast; Defense Secretary Leon Panetta’s trip to Tokyo to referee a cock fight between China and Japan over some water-bound real estate; and the Justice Department nearing a decision to bring an action against JPMorgan Chase for failing to monitor certain transactions which may have allowed the laundering of drug cartel and terrorist money.

All of those stories that in normal times probably would have gained Google’s first and most visible position on the page were demoted to the Editor’s Picks section, or appeared far lower down where the allergy and incontinence research is located.

Those stories needed follow ups, and they never got them.

Follow-up stories are what newspapers do when they can’t adequately treat stories that require more than breaking news coverage.  Follow ups are what Google ought to be good at, considering it’s a 24/7 aggregator/amplifier.

Google had featured prominently a Romney campaign promise that he wasn’t giving up on Latino voters (despite his tasteless joke about Mexican Americans on the poisonous videotape) and would bounce back by visiting the Los Angeles Hispanic Chamber of Commerce on Sept. 17.  Google never featured the story.

It’s for sure true that no earthbound assortment of reporters and editors could have fit all that was happening – as it was happening — onto a few pages of reefers and mugshots and not have bungled some of the editorial choices.  But Google could have done better.

First off, on busy news days newspapers used to run bulletins on their front pages that sketched what was known, promising more was to come in later editions.  Google doesn’t do that.  For hours on Sept. 15 it gave the lead story position to the Washington Post, which reported that Egypt’s capital was torn by shooting and rioting even as more recent stories from Reuters and Bloomberg News on the Google News site were saying calm had returned.  It took far too long for Google to replace the WashPo lead story with one from the New York Times headlined “Streets are Cleared in Cairo; Unrest Towards Film Subsides.” News, after all, is mainly built on the concept the word contains: the new.

For a considerable time, the Times’ story ran in the lead position on the left side of the page at the same time a reefer line to the same story was running under the “Recent” column on the right side of the page.  Take your pick; you would have gotten the same story.

There’s also a Barron’s story that seems to be a stock tout for Southwest Airlines that’s been running since July.  This kind of indifference to the currency of their own product would have gotten a newspaper editor reassigned from news to obituaries.  It’s just plain lazy not to read your own product and edit it.

Journalists understand that the closer, geographically, a source is to a story the more complete the story is likely to be.  In other words, when there’s a forest fire, you call someone who can see it.

A scene from “Innocence of Muslims.”

Curiously, when it was learned that the YouTube obscenity that set off all the rioting was produced in Los Angeles, Google did not rely on the LA Times’ story on the subject.  On Sept. 15, when it was learned that small-time fraudster and ex-convict Nakoula Basseley Nakoula had produced the video, and had been picked up on parole violations, the LA Times was still left out of the coverage, even though Google used its photos of Nakoula to promote the New York Times and Washington Post stories — and both those newspapers acknowledged the Los Angeles paper in their own stories.

The next day, the LA Times finally appeared in Google News, but only in the slide show called Editor’s Picks, where its lengthy story reported that a Coptic Christian pastor, exiled from Egypt, helped Nakoula and two other Copts produce the film.  On Sept. 17, The Daily News –all the way from New York — had the lead that the video was made by the same-aged director who in the 1970s had produced The Happy Hooker series of films, and other girlie porn flicks.   The LA Times had the story from the start on Sept. 14.

Similarly, the videotape that blew away Romney’s hopes to erase Obama’s lead went viral when Mother Jones published it. But Mother Jones, the main source, was not permitted to lead Google News with the story.

Ignoring the local reaches its apex in the “News Near You” section, where for reasons known only to Google’s editors the publication it trusts most to deliver San Diego news is the North County Times out of Escondido.

Of the 24 San Diego stories I saw, 13 belonged to the NCT (runner up was SD 6, with 7; in contrast, CBS affiliate KFMB had just one).  The NCT has a kind of potato patch view of the world even if it’s not as radically reactionary as its new owner, the Manchester U-T.

Take Sept. 16, when these were the highlights bringing the world up-to-date on happenings in San Diego:  Poway was having a fair featuring “rifle firing, cannon firing, spinning and mock gunfights and train robberies;” still in Poway, the Chamber of Commerce threw a street fair; in San Diego there was a Bunnyfest and the Navy’s Fleet Week.

Guns and roses pretty much dominated “News Near You” the rest of the way: There was a meeting of the San Pasqual Battlefields Association, a WWII veteran was remembering D-Day in Escondido and there were no fewer than five food shows and restaurant walks throughout the county.  There were two beer festivals, one in San Diego and the other in Carlsbad. If all that made you feel overweight and outgunned, you could go to Vista’s Creative Healing Fest that featured a “crystal bowl and sound healing experts.”

There wasn’t a word about Doug Manchester buying the NCT.

Some people will argue this arbitrary disregard for news values is only apparent; that, in fact, it is based in the complicated algorhythms developed by Google to scan news outlets for the latest and best news stories, and that founders of Google News have consulted with traditional news outlets on how to humanize its selection process.

But too much of Google News argues against the notion that a machine has judgment.  If it did, how could it decide on Sept. 21 to feature an interview of NBC’s Chuck Todd by NBC’s David Gregory as the lead story?

On the same final day monitored last week — two days after Google ran the CBS story that tried to convince us the Romney and Obama campaigns were running neck and neck — high up on the page Google featured CBS’ account of Gallup Poll numbers showing only 40% of Americans trust the industry to fairly report the news.  The headline read: “Distrust in Media Hits New High.”

Google News is doing its part.


  1. avatarAnna Daniels says

    Bob- you have articulated the reason why checking Google News is fairly low down on my early morning data quests. I really appreciate a good news aggregator and Google News is not it. In fact I don’t know of a really good news aggregator. (I still check HuffPo (aka Sideboob Gazette) first thing because it is a quick way for me to determine if the world ended during the night and I am the last to know.) But I probably hit 10 blogs before I ever get to Google News. I am frustrated that their science news languishes with the same stories for days. The San Diego Google news used to be worth checking throughout the day, but I think their algorithm has gone off its meds. The NCT articles have a lede followed by a jumble of topics, which is off-putting.
    I like the idea of Google News, but the reality is disappointing, as you pointed out so well.