June 16, 2008
Search, data and the responsibilities of news orgs
I've had a couple experiences in the past couple weeks that have made me think hard about the consequences, intended and not, of how technology-- particularly search -- and news interact.
The first came a couple of weeks ago when I was set upon at a conference by a fairly prominent broadcast journalism producer. See, three years ago, when Our Little Business was just a TypePad blog, I took a brief break from hyperlocal punditry to debunk some of the reporting in a story that a national news show ran about a Dallas nonprofit. It was a spicy topic and got a lot of traffic. I had some tough words for this producer and the network, both of whom refused to answer what I thought were reasonable questions.
Three years later, it turns out that my blog post was the top Google result for this award-winning journalist. And, because she's an Auld Media type, she'd never bothered to Google herself until someone refused to work with her in her new venture, ostensibly because of what I had published.
I stand by what I wrote. Frankly even more so after dealing with this particular individual. (Not a pleasant experience, which is why I'm being a uncharacteristically circumspect in not linking to or providing more detail on the post. For now I'm resisting temptation to mix it up further with her.)
However, I certainly never intended my blog post to be the defining online entry for anyone. I guess that in TV the on-air talent gets all the recognition and the producer rarely gets much press. And while I think the story analyzed was poorly done, I don't know that it should do long-term damage to anyone's career. So, against my better judgment, I removed the producer's name from the posts, along with one line she convinced me was technically accurate, but given the situation, less than charitable.
My entries have fallen from top result to number 52, even though Google's cache hasn't updated yet. This producer still doesn't seem to understand that I can't make that cache update any faster.) I think this is the right outcome, but good arguments could be made on both sides.
Then today I got an email from local man who wanted us to remove a story from our site . Our story said that he was charged with a serious crime. He was later acquitted.
We don't remove stories, but we approach this sort of situation differently than most media outlets. Whether or not we do a new story on the acquittal, we update the old story with a notice and / or a link.
When making the change, I did a quick survey of the coverage from other media outlets around town. Four had carried the original story on the arrest. Two had run stories on the acquittal. None had updated or linked the original story to the new one.
Although search algorithms aren't public domain, we do know that number of items of a type and volume of traffic and links impact results. And even without statistics to back this up, I think it's anecdotally safe to assume that sensationalistic "guy thrown in jail" stories get more traffic mojo than paragraph-long "guy acquitted" stories wedged into a regional roundup. So, when you Google this fellow's name, what comes up are the "guy thrown in jail" stories.
I'm tempted to say that news organizations have the responsibility to update these stories in both directions-- ensuring that the updated version is available to anyone who finds the original. I'm not just talking about the acquitted, but any story where we thought X but then learned that the truth is Y.
But then I realize that we're often only able to do so fairly easily because our content management system is so damn database-y. Plus, while our technology enables this, we often lack the manpower to follow up on every story we run. We didn't catch this one until the acquitted accused contacted us a month later. I suspect that the two outlets who haven't reported the acquittal aren't so easy to reach or quick to update, particularly if the acquittal doesn't make their newscast. And given the business challenges that are leading to media layoffs , followup may only get more difficult.
For sure, we're in an age where the rules are being re-written every day. Technology is allowing us do things that seemed a pipedream three years ago. Along the way, we need to reflect on the downsides of the upside.