By Bob Dorn
No question, the news will make you cranky.
GOOGLE News’ll make you cranky, too. Worse, it also makes you think you’re smarter than everybody else, an unfortunate combination of attitudes if you value reaching out to your fellow human being.
It’s good for us to remember Google News and other engineering marvels are designed and managed by mere mortals.
First some small stuff.
Big San Diego stories might not appear in Google News, not even in the sections designated to include some San Diego news. When that 18-inch water main burst in Kearny Mesa Sept. 03, unleashing a still-unknown number of gallons of water down streets and storm drains after many, many months of an historic drought… Google News did not have the story.
Probably because of its visual element, and the grand irony that it occurred during a drought, the story went around the world. A friend of mine wrote from Spain asking if we got flooded out.
Local NBC-7 had the best story I read on the subject, citing the loss in 2013 of 6.6 million gallons of water during breakdowns of the ancient iron system.
The story explained that 6.6 million gallons is what one San Diegan would consume, presumably including showering, watering the plants, washing the clothes and the car, and so so on, if they were to live 205 years. NBC-7 went on to report that since 2010 the city of San Diego has paid out $3.9 million to property owners compensating them for the damage caused by water main breaks in city neighborhoods.
You have to recognize that even a system like Google will screw up now and then. Maybe the day of the flood the mook-in-charge had jumped out for a nooner and left the editing to the intern. Who knows?
The mook-in-charge at Google News must have been at his divorce hearing on Sept. 02 when Joan Rivers lay dying the day before the flood because the intern really managed to destroy her endgame with this mess of a pre-story blurb:
“Comedian Joan Rivers talks to reporters as she arrives for a gala honoring the late comedian Joan Rivers who was rushed to a NY hospital after she stopped breathing during surgery on her vocal chords.” Now, there’s a real cut and paste tragedy. Google News let someone who was not yet dead announce her own death, before she was pronounced dead two days later.
A lot of Google News’ failures seem to result from accidents and overlooks like those; others appear to be the consequence of faulty design.
It’s common for Google News to entrust local stories to news sources farthest from the stories. Here are few examples of San Diego stories left to distant coverage.
At the end of July when a private plane crashed into the Kearny Mesa Costco parking lot, leaving one woman dead and another seriously injured, Google let USA Today and People Magazine cover it; no local news outlet was given the honor.
August 13, the death of a cyclist and hospitalization of six of his companions injured when a car being driven the wrong way around Fiesta Island crashed into them on a blind curve was reported by the San Jose Mercury News. No San Diego source was used.
August 19, the day San Diego’s City Council voted 6-3 to override Mayor Kevin Faulconer’s veto of the city’s minimum wage law — an earthquake that is still generating stories — the LA Times was given coverage rights.
Google News is also vulnerable to the normal run of mainstream coddling of the Right and The Righteous, and will run goofy stories from Obama haters and those partial to Israel’s place in the middle east. Haaretz and The Jerusalem Post often will have first shot at the lead position in the news when something real involving Tel Aviv breaks loose.
On August 11 this year an outfit called Breaking Israel News occupied the third most prominent position on Google News’ page, during a time when hundreds of civilians in Gaza were dying from missile strikes.
That main story featured Old Testament Quotes from Deuteronomy, Joel, et.al., and recounted with quotes stories of “mystical beings visiting (Israeli) soldiers.” A dove was said to have landed on the detonation cord of a booby-trapped bomb in an Arab house, tripping off the explosion just as IDF soldiers were about to enter and search it. Breaking Israel News goes on to quote an unnamed “Hamas commander” admitting terrorists launched rockets at Israel “but their God changes their path in midair.”
No experienced editor would select that story for coverage. Journalists are supposed to deal with what is.
Now, for mediocrity in political coverage there’s no one getting away with it better than POLITICO. It was started back during the blazing light emanating from the Bush Administration. Dubya himself made a public endorsement of this collection of Washington insiders. They mainly do spin.
Nothing ever is reported in POLITICO’s columns; its writers only talk about what happened. There’s precious little research and digging and interviewing. You won’t find POLITICO in the list of Pulitzer Prize winners in journalism.
But Google likes POLITICO. You can’t get rid of it if you read Google News.
Back in August of 2010, when Google News first described its plans for reader interactivity at something it would call Editors Picks, the idea was greeted enthusiastically by the tech press as a method (app?) enabling people to control their own news diet through an interactive, designable selectivity.
It sounded good and interactive. It gave you the right to determine what news outlets you wanted to read in your own Editors Picks, and those included The NY Times, Wall St. Journal, the Associated Press, the LA Times, Reuters and other great traditional news gatherers and investigators. There was even a lever you could slide for each that would feature that outlet “often, sometimes, occasionally or rarely.”
It all turned out to be a big corporate Google News selfie, designed to sell air and fear and sensation.
By August 07 I was so fed up I decided to test to see if I was just being cranky, only imagining that POLITICO had the inside rail at Google News. So I slid the frequency lever for POLITICO to “rarely” and set the LA Times, Rolling Stone, PBS, ProPublica and NY Times levers to “often.”
After a full month, 30 days, of near perfect attendance (I missed four days) at my scientific monitoring here’s what I discovered:
- Google News featured POLITICO on Editors Picks almost always — 22 times of the 26 total days I covered that section — even though I’d set its frequency to “rarely.” The only news outlet featured more often was the New York Times, which appeared 25 times, and that was good for me.
- Of the others I’d selected to receive “often” PBS appeared exactly twice. The LA Times, Rolling Stone and ProPublica NEVER APPEARED, not even once, though they were set to appear “often.”
I imagine there’s a culture operating today at most established world technical companies wherein individual engineers get an idea and develop it until the major goombahs can streamline it into the product line. It’s an engineering culture.
There is little reward in this culture for perceiving and representing larger reality well. It seems to me instead that the object is to create something rather than to describe what exists. Google News readers can’t be blamed if they fall into an illusion they’ve crossed a faultless portal to a faultless reality. If it turns out to be faulty and harmful, we can always Undo it, can’t we?
This disregard for careful thought about the world arrives in our laptops and phones thanks to a corporation that once claimed as its motto, “Do No Evil.”
That’s the kind of distortion that can occur when people try to bring reality under their own control.
John Lawrence says
Has any prominent San Diegan including the Mayor and the City Council weighed in on, taken any responsibility for or lamented the water main break in Kearney Mesa that wasted presumably millions of gallons of that precious fluid causing a lot of damage and inconvenience in the process? Are they determined now to replace the other 100 year old water mains? Wouldn’t it be ironic if the last bit of water to be found in southern California was water coming from a water main break? When are these guys going to get serious about conserving water? It seems to me that replacing antiquated water mains is a good place to start.
bob dorn says
Oh they’re replacing the old iron mains, for sure. It just took them a long time to spend on infrastructure, which accounts for the multiple main breaks we’re seeing now. If you were to throw your grandma’s rusted wrought iron table into the creek, chances are you wouldn’t find it there in five years. City fathers under the Republican regimes always dismissed suggestions we work on infrastructure as liberal/socialist code language for public jobs. Why keep the water flowing to neighborhoods when you can instead subsidize tourism, waive fees to biotechs, and help billionaires John Moores and the Spanos Family build gladiator’s pits? You know the plumbing in the hotels, and industrial plants and the stadia are up to the flow.
Anna Daniels says
Bob- this article showed up on my San Diego Google News page. You cracked the mystery of the Google algorithm.