Journalists Team Up with Big Tech. What Could Go Wrong?
Google started as a search engine.
Simply type in a keyword and voilà, millions of results come up for you to pore over.
Then, Google went big. I mean, really big.
Google became not only a noun but also a verb.
The tech giant would go on to launch Gmail, Google Maps, Google Docs, Google Earth, Google Drive and countless other products.
It would also purchase video colossus YouTube and even create its own phone.
However, in the last few years, Google has shifted part of its attention to a non-tech related field: journalism.
Instead of just being a platform for delivering news articles from publishers across the world, Google somehow felt the need to enter into the world of journalism.
As a result, the Google News Initiative was born.
VP of News at Google Richard Gingras writes that the initiative has “centered around a spirit of experimentation, with programs focused on three pillars: working with the news industry to evolve their business models, raising up quality journalism and driving new thinking and approaches in newsrooms.”
One of the ways Google is trying to accomplish this mission is to train journalists in the use of its tools by partnering with the Society of Professional Journalists.
The SPJ boasts that the collaborative effort has trained over 21,000 journalists in more than 550 locations through the program.
It writes on its website that “access to information is more important than ever.”
“Google tools provide valuable, inventive and often unexpected ways for journalists to access and process information for the betterment of their stories and the benefit of their readers,” the SPJ adds.
While this may seem like more of a marketing effort by Google to promote its products, one has to ask, Why is Google training journalists and why does Google feel the need to interject itself into journalism?
More importantly, how will this impact the bias journalists have toward Google?
Of course, I’ve reached out to the SPJ and to Google to ask these questions, but neither has responded to my requests for comment.
However, Director at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia Journalism School Emily Bell addresses some of these concerns in the Columbia Journalism Review.
“But to question Google is now frowned upon in many quarters in journalism. The company has received markedly better press than some of its competitors, notably Facebook,” she writes.
“This is in part because it is more mature, and handles relations with the press far better (it has not tried to hide its own influence campaigns, for instance). It also spends more money.”
“To question Google is now frowned upon in many quarters in journalism.”
– Emily Bell
“The extra money Google provides to journalism is not directly buying favor or dampening dissent, but it is certainly making news CEOs and editors I speak to put Google in a subtly different category from other platforms,“ she adds.
Bell would go on to say that Google and other big tech companies are doing things “that journalists should be investigating, not profiting from.”
However, if Google is pouring millions of dollars into newsrooms across America, how will journalists remain unbiased?
Bell points out that Craig Forman, president and CEO of McClatchy promises that “Google will have no input or involvement in any editorial efforts or decision making.”
But are we really supposed to be reassured by that?
I, for one, am not.
Some people may push back and say, “Well, journalists are only using the tools that Google is providing.”
There are two issues with that.
For one, it still doesn’t address why Google started a “News Initiative.” Couldn’t they just market their tools without self-appointing themselves as the unofficial news czar?
Secondly, can’t data be manipulated?
We know that Google makes changes to its search algorithm to actually blacklist some websites from showing up in Google News.
Additionally, a recent audit actually found that Google favors a small and select group of publishers and showcases them on the “Top Stories” box on Google search.
So, if Google can manipulate these search results, how can we trust that Google isn’t manipulating data within the tools it provides journalists?
These are questions that need to be answered by Google. Though I doubt that we’ll hear any coherent answers from the tech giant.
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