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This Week in Review: ‘Mosques’ and SEO, Google’s search and social troubles, and a stateless WikiLeaks

[Every Friday, Mark Coddington sums up the week’s top stories about the future of news and the debates that grew up around them. —Josh]

Maintaining accuracy in an SEO-driven world: Apparently the future-of-news world isn’t immune to the inevitable dog days of August, because this week was one of the slowest in this corner of the web in the past year. There were still some interesting discussions simmering, so let’s take a look, starting with the political controversy du jour: The proposed construction of a Muslim community center in downtown Manhattan near the site of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center. I’m not going to delve into the politics of the issue, or even the complaints that this story is symptomatic of a shallow news media more concerned about drummed-up controversy than substantive issues. Instead, I want to focus on the decisions that news organizations have been making about what to call the project.

It has predominantly been called the “ground zero mosque,” though beginning about two weeks ago, some attention began being trained on news organizations — led most vocally by The New York Times and The Associated Press, which changed its internal label for the story — that wouldn’t use that phrase out of a concern for accuracy. The Village Voice used some Google searches to find that while there’s been an uptick in news sources’ use of the project’s proper names (Park51 and the Cordoba Center), “ground zero mosque” is still far and away the most common designation.

What’s most interesting about this discussion are the ideas about why a factually inaccurate term has taken such a deep root in coverage of the issue, despite efforts to refute it: The Village Voice pointed a finger at cable news, which has devoted the most time to the story, while the Online Journalism Review’s Brian McDermott pinpointed our news consumption patterns driven by “warp-speed skimming” and smart-phone headlines that make easy labels more natural for readers and editors.” Watery qualifiers like ‘near’ or ‘so-called’ don’t stick in our brains as much, nor do they help a website climb the SEO ladder.”

Poynter ethicist Kelly McBride zeroed in on that idea of search-engine optimization, noting that the AP is being punished for their stand against the term “ground zero mosque” by not appearing very highly on the all-important news searches for that phrase. In order to stay relevant to search engines, news organizations have to continue using an inaccurate term once it’s taken hold, she concluded. In response, McBride suggested pre-emptively using factchecking resources to nip misconceptions in the bud. “Now that Google makes it impossible to move beyond our distortions — even when we know better — we should be prepared,” she said.

Google’s search and social takes shots: Google takes more than few potshots every week on any number of subjects, but this week, several of them were related to some intriguing future-of-news issues we’ve been talking about regularly here at the Lab, so I thought I’d highlight them a bit. Ex-Salon editor Scott Rosenberg took Google News to task for its placement of an Associated Content article at the top of search results on last week’s Dr. Laura Schlessinger controversy. Associated Content is the giant “content farm” bought earlier this year by Yahoo, and its Dr. Laura article appears to be a particularly mediocre constructed article cynically designed solely to top Google’s ranking for “Dr. Laura n-word.”

Rosenberg takes the incident as a sign that reliability of Google News’ search results has begun to be eclipsed by content producers’ guile: “When Google tells me that this drivel is the most relevant result, I can’t help thinking, the game’s up.” The Lab’s Jim Barnett also questioned Google CEO Eric Schmidt’s recent articulation of the company’s idea of automating online serendipity, wondering how a “serendipity algorithm” might shape or limit our worldviews as Google prefers.

Google’s social-media efforts also took a few more hits, with Slate’s Farhad Manjoo conducting a postmortem on Google Wave, homing in on its ill-defined purpose and unnecessary complexity. Google should have positioned Wave as an advanced tool for sophisticated users, Manjoo argued, but the company instead clumsily billed it as the possible widespread successor to email and instant messenging. Meanwhile, Adam Rifkin of GigaOM criticized the company’s acquisition of the social app company Slide (and its social-media attempts in general), advising Google to buy companies whose products fit well into its current offerings, rather than chasing after the social-gaming industry — which he said “feels like it’s about to collapse on itself.”

WikiLeaks, stateless news and transparency: The saga of the open-source leaking website WikiLeaks took a very brief, bizarre turn this weekend, when reports emerged early Saturday that founder Julian Assange was wanted by Swedish authorities for rape, then later that day prosecutors announced he was no longer a suspect. The New York Times provided some great background on Assange’s cat-and-mouse games with various world governments, including the United States, which is reportedly considering charging him under the Espionage Act for WikiLeaks’ release last month of 92,000 pages of documents regarding the war in Afghanistan.

No one really had any idea what to make of this episode, and few were bold enough to make any strong speculations publicly. Two bloggers explored the (possible) inner workings of the situation, with Nicholas Mead using it to argue that catching Assange isn’t exactly going to stop WikiLeaks — as NYU professor Jay Rosen noted last month, WikiLeaks is the first truly stateless news organization, something only permitted by the structure of the web.

That slippery, stateless nature extends to WikiLeaks’ funding, which The Wall Street Journal focused on this week in a fine feature. Unlike the wide majority of news organizations, there is virtually no transparency to WikiLeaks’ funding, though the Journal did piece together a few bits of information: The site has raised $1 million this year, much of its financial network is tied to Germany’s Wau Holland Foundation, and two unnamed American nonprofits serve as fronts for the site.

Hyperlocal news and notes: A few hyperlocal news-related ideas and developments worth passing along: Sarah Hartley, who works on The Guardian’s hyperlocal news efforts, wrote a thoughtful post attempting to define “hyperlocal” in 10 characteristics. Hyperlocal, she argues, is no longer defined by a tight geographical area, but by an attitude. She follows with a list of defining aspects, such as obsessiveness, fact/opinion blending, linking and community participation. It’s a great list, though it seems Hartley may be describing the overarching blogging ethos more so than hyperlocal news per se. (Steve Yelvington, for one, says the term is meaningless.)

Brad Flora at PBS MediaShift provided a helpful list of blogs for hyperlocal newsies to follow. (Disclosure: The Lab is one of them.) And two online media giants made concrete steps in long-expected moves toward hyperlocal news: Microsoft’s Bing launched its first hyperlocal product with a restaurant guide in Portland, and Yahoo began recruiting writers for a local news site in the San Francisco area.

Reading roundup: Despite the slow news week, there’s no shortage of thoughtful pieces on stray subjects that are worth your time. Here’s a quick rundown:

— Spot.Us founder David Cohn wrote an illuminating post comparing journalists’ (particularly young ones’) current search for a way forward in journalism to the ancient Israelites’ 40 years of wandering in the desert. TBD’s Steve Buttry, a self-described “old guy,” responded that it may not take a generation to find the next iteration of journalism but said his generation has been responsible for holding innovation back: “We might make it out of the desert, but I think our generation has blown our chance to lead the way.”

— A couple of interesting looks at developing stories online: Terry Heaton posited that one reason for declining trust in news organizations is their focus on their own editorial voice to the detriment of the public’s understanding (something audiences see in stark relief when comparing coverage of developing news), and Poynter’s Steve Myers used the Steven Slater story to examine how news spreads online.

— At The Atlantic, Tim Carmody wrote a fantastic overview of the pre-web history of reading.

— In an argument that mirrors the discussions about the values of the new news ecosystem, former ESPN.com writer Dan Shanoff gave a case for optimism about the current diffused, democratized state of sports media.

— Another glass-half-full post: Mike Mandel broke down journalism job statistics and was encouraged by what he found.

— Finally, for all the students headed back to class right now, the Online Journalism Review’s Robert Niles has some of the best journalism-related advice you’ll read all year.

                                   
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