When Data Breaks the News

Google is putting a new spin on the news. Instead of relying on journalists to gather facts and report events the old-fashioned way, the company’s News Lab, launched earlier this year, aims to deliver news stories through data.

Case in point: Who needs polls to reveal that Donald Trump is the most popular candidate in the Republican primary free-for-all? By tracking search requests for each candidate, Google Trends, part of the News Lab, came up with this interactive county-by-county map showing the volume of searches for each candidate. Yes, Trump’s color key is red.

That concentration of tan between Lake Superior and Lake Michigan is the state of Wisconsin, where searchs for native son Gov. Scott Walker beat Trump handily — number in searches.

Of course, Google’s data doesn’t reveal whether searches were motivated by positive, negative or neutral interest, but when it comes to name recognition, the data speaks just about as loudly as Trump.

Partnerships Aplenty

Google’s News Lab launch followed Facebook’s introduction of Instant Articles this spring. Instant Articles allows a select group of publishers to place their content directly on Facebook, allowing readers speedier access without having to leave the network.

Interestingly, rumors surfaced last week that Google and Twitter are collaborating on a similar offering.

The News Lab late last month partnered with The Poynter Institute and the Society for Professional Journalists to develop a journalism training program in the use of digital tools.

Google has partnered with the First Draft Coalition to create educational resources on how to verify eyewitness media and use it in news reporting.

It also partnered with Storyful to create the YouTube Newswire, which lets journalists search for user-generated videos that have been certified and cleared for use, such as this exclusive report on the discovery of Homo naledi:

Storyful is part of News Corp., the sister company of 21st Century Fox, which includes the Fox network.

The News Lab is teamed with Witness to create the Witness Media Lab, an effort to find, verify and contextualize eyewitness videos.

Ethical Dilemmas

Google’s News Lab connects journalists with programs, data and other resources.

It provides tools for newsrooms, including tutorials and best practices on how to use Google products in reporting.

The News Lab’s goal apparently is to make Google one of the main sources for newsrooms to obtain data, but that raises a red flag. There are many sources available, of course, and the temptation to rely too much on Google could introduce the problem of bias.

Can citizens trust any one company essentially to curate the news? Will the people curating the data and videos be free of pressure from Google? Will Google try to influence the news and videos and data collected? What guarantees are there that the data will be untainted?

“There is a real danger in relying too much on information that is curated by an entity that likely has skin in the game,” said John Simpson, privacy advocate at Consumer Watchdog.

“Google offers powerful — and sometimes useful — tools from which partners can benefit, but they should keep the Internet giant at arm’s length,” he told TechNewsWorld. “Partnerships with Google are a path to undermining one’s journalistic integrity, essential independence and credibility.”

Simpson’s analysis “is clearly influenced by 29 years as a working journalist that includes time as editor of USA’s International Edition and as deputy editor of USA Today,” he noted.

The News Lab is “a charm offensive, and a blatant attempt on Google’s part to burnish its image and forge close ties with the press,” Simpson warned.

The New New Journalism

Perhaps it’s not all worrisome.

“I’m impressed by the scope of the projects,” said Jeffrey Dvorkin, director of the journalism program at theUniversity of Toronto, Scarborough.

For Google, the News Lab is “a form of venture journalism — like venture capitalism,” he told TechNewsWorld. Some of its projects will survive while others won’t.

The face of journalism is changing because of the advent of smartphones and social media, though whether that’s for the better remains open to debate. Citizen reporters don’t have to adhere to the strictures of accuracy, accountability and vetting for bias that are among the best practices in journalism.

Meanwhile, traditional journalism organizations are struggling with declining revenues and audiences, and scrabbling to make their online efforts pay off.

New money is flowing into the news industry and it may be fostering new ways of reporting and reaching audiences, while social and mobile developments are changing the dynamics of the news process, Pew Research found.

Facebook has signed up at least nine partners for its Instant Articles, including The New York Times, National Geographic, Buzzfeed, NBC, The Guardian and BBC News.

Google’s locked in a bitter battle with Facebook, and the News Lab is an extension of that rivalry. It’s likely to heat up if the rumored collaboration between Google and Twitter to develop an open source version of instant articles comes to fruition.

Richard Adhikari

Richard Adhikari has written about high-tech for leading industry publications since the 1990s and wonders where it's all leading to. Will implanted RFID chips in humans be the Mark of the Beast? Will nanotech solve our coming food crisis? Does Sturgeon's Law still hold true? You can connect with Richard on Google+.

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