Is it Google’s job to somehow improve the media?

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As most media watchers know by now, the industry is going through an unprecedented upheaval, with newspapers in particular being disrupted by the shift to digital and what Om has called the “democracy of distribution” created by real-time social tools like blogs and Twitter, which make anyone into a publisher.

So while news used to be a tightly controlled product from a few mainstream sources, there is now an explosion of content from virtually everywhere — some of it good and much of it not so good. At Google’s recent Zeitgeist symposium, legendary TV newsman Ted Koppel suggested it is somehow Google’s duty to fix this problem, and CEO Larry Page seemed to agree. But relying on Google to choose what news we should read is a very slippery slope.

According to a report in the New York Times, the topic came up when Koppel — a former long-time anchorman for ABC News — said too much of what passes for news now is trivial and sensationalistic, with networks and media outlets spending all their time covering things like the Casey Anthony trial instead of more important topics such as war in the Middle East or famine in Africa. The NYT report paraphrases Koppel as saying that people are being “fed the news they want instead of the news they need because that makes news organizations money.”

Asked by New Yorker editor Nicholas Thompson whether Google should tweak its algorithms to focus on important news instead of the trivial, Koppel apparently said “that wouldn’t be a bad idea.” Later, Page said (although not in direct response to Koppel’s suggestion) that he thinks Google should filter and present the news so that people focus on “the real issues.”

I see this as our responsibility to some extent, trying to improve media… we have a responsibility to make those things work a lot better and get people focused on what are the real issues, what should you be thinking about. And I think we as a whole are not doing a good job of that at all.

Do we need Google to tell us what to read?

As the NYT points out, Google already edits its search results — both news-related and otherwise — for all sorts of reasons. It removes sources it believes are scraping content, for example, or that aren’t producing “journalism” broadly speaking, such as a site that posted rewritten press releases from the California water authority. And it undoubtedly chooses to favor certain popular sources of content (including the New York Times, in all likelihood) over others. As Reuters editor Anthony De Rosa noted in a tweet, almost all algorithms are to some extent human filters that make choices to include or exclude certain things. And Google has added ways for media outlets to help filter — such as the “author” tag and the new “standout” tag for breaking or important news.

That said, however, do we really need Google (or Ted Koppel, for that matter) to tell us what’s important, or what we “need” to know? That would just be exchanging one information gatekeeper for another — and one that would be using criteria unknown to users, just as Google’s search algorithms are a mystery. Does my clicking +1 on a search result matter more because I have a Google+ account with lots of followers? I have no idea, nor will Google probably ever tell me. How exactly is Google going to determine what news topics or stories are ones that I “should” read?

One of the main benefits of the web from a news standpoint is the fact that the number of sources have expanded by orders of magnitude. Are there too many outlets obsessing over Casey Anthony, or the Kardashians, or the size and shape of a specific phone that may or may not be coming from Apple? Sure. But getting Google to hide some of them and promote others doesn’t seem like a great solution.

Getting Google to choose topics and/or sources that are “important” suffers from the same problem that licensing journalists does. That’s an idea that Britain’s Labour Party and some other jurisdictions have proposed, and one that some professional journalists have supported in a short-sighted response to hacking allegations against News Corp.  (and an attempt to build a wall around their jobs). Who is going to choose the criteria such licenses are based on? And what about those who don’t get a license? They would wind up being silenced or relegated to some kind of journalistic ghetto, presumably.

Journalism gets better the more people there are doing it

I’m a firm believer in journalism professor Jay Rosen’s argument that journalism gets better when more people are doing it — whether those people have licenses, whether they are committing what NPR’s Andy Carvin calls “random acts of journalism,” and whether they even think of themselves as journalists or not. The rise of blogs and Twitter as tools for publishing news (however you define that term) is fundamentally a good thing. And we get to create our own filters now, instead of someone else doing it for us.

As for Koppel’s criticism that people are fed the news they want and not the news they need, this complaint is as old as the industry itself. There have been many periods when newspapers and other dominant media outlets tended towards the sensationalistic, with little regard for things like the truth, or what was allegedly important about the world. Newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst, for example, was famous for this kind of coverage. His practice led to the coining of the term “yellow journalism.” Hearst was also famous for telling a reporter covering the Spanish-American war: “You provide the pictures, I’ll provide the war.”

There will be times when people want to read sensationalistic stories about trivial episodes involving Hollywood celebrities, just as there are times when people want to watch movies or TV shows filled with vapid blather and sophomoric writing. Does that mean we need Google to control which shows we watch or what movies we enjoy? Hardly. So why would we want a search engine to filter the news for us? Yes, the news is more important than TV or movies — which is all the more reason why we should be careful about who is telling us what to read.

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr users George Kelly and Yan Arief Purwanto

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