Pay attention: you may not think of Coca Cola, the Microsoft Corporation or the RIAA as legitimate news organizations, but Google News thinks so. It's redefined the term "news" so that press releases from corporate sites or lobby groups are acceptable content for the "automated" news harvester, Google confirmed to The Register today.
We say "automated" in inverted commas, because someone has to make decisions about what's acceptable - that's a human choice.
And the choices that this human makes - for this he or she is very real - give us some interesting news clusters, as this picture demonstrates (check out the sources):
There you have it: the RIAA is a bona fide news organization. Maybe it deserves to join a guild, or qualify for 'embedded status' with the military in Iraq?
Tonight we found a Monsanto Company press release. and one from Exxon-Mobil corporation entitled "Avial Selects Exxon Elite Engine Oil for Use in its Husky and Pitts Aircraft") - how is this news? It's even more boring than CNET, whose distinctive headline style it attempts to emulate. But wait - guess who scooped the top lead in the business section? Phillip Morris!
Incredibly, a search for "cluster bombs" on Google News yielded five stories, and four of them were press releases. Only one was a "news story".
These last three examples, unlike the RIAA release, take the reader to what Yahoo! calls "Yahoo! News". But they are genuine press releases, comfortingly free of the authentication, or scepticism, or context that a real news organization might add.
A spokesman finally explained:
"We use press releases, but generally we don't lead with them."
But why use press releases at all?
"We like to cover a broad range of opinion," he said.
On Thursday we reported that an A-List of tech webloggers had changed the semantic meaning of the word "second superpower", which had been spreading in use by the antiwar movement and NGOs. Now Google has changed the semantic meaning of the word "news", to include press releases.
What word will change next?
Tools you can trust?
Transparency in the instruments we use is vital, to ensure the integrity of the system. So we need to know how these editorial decisions are made.
Fortunately, Google has promised to do a very rare thing: and actually publish its guidelines for what it considers as a news site in written form. To date, the rules have been vague and verbal (we were offered a verbal version several times today, but insisted on something in writing); and meanwhile, we are expected to be distracted by this soothing statement:-
"The selection and placement of stories on this page were determined automatically by a computer program. "
No they weren't. This isn't some synthetic version of reality created entirely by robots. The selection and placement of stories were determined by a person, someone who thinks unedited press releases from lobbyists, special interest groups or corporations are "News".
We will learn of these guidelines on Monday, and share them with you the moment we receive this historical document.
We'll also be speaking to a Google representative, so mail your concerns and questions here. ®
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