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Oct. 27, 2020, 12:45 p.m.
Reporting & Production

Google releases new tools for journalists — and shares insider insight on what’s trending on the search platform

Pinpoint, which uses AI and machine learning to help reporters sift through investigative materials, is part of the recently-released Journalist Studio.

Your readers have questions. They’re turning to Google to answer them.

In July, trending queries included “what is a faithless elector,” “qualified immunity,” “corona is airborne disease or not?” and “brain eating amoeba florida.” (Such a fun summer.) More recently, “why is columbus day celebrated,” “how to watch 60 minutes,” and “presidential debate drinking game” spiked.

Simon Rogers, a longtime data journalist who now serves as the data editor at Google News Lab, catalogs these in a regular Google Trends Newsletter. The illuminating, curious, and occasionally hilarious missive started as a breakdown for coronavirus-related topics but has continued even as our collective attention has grown to include Black Lives Matter protests, the general election, and an onside kick by the Dallas Cowboys. By publishing lists of “breakout” phrases and trending questions, reporters can see what readers are most interested in knowing. Ahead of the election, the newsletter also serves as a reminder of the top issues for voters (unemployment, wages, and health care) despite relative spikes in other topics.

In a recent issue focused on the final presidential debate, subscribers learned that “swine flu mortality rate” and “did fauci say not to wear masks” were both breakout searches within the first 30 minutes of the broadcast.

The trending data comes without context, which makes names, questions, and phrases susceptible to (mis)interpretation. (As Rogers regularly reminds readers, “Search data is an indication of curiosity in the subject or candidate. It should not be considered an indication of voter intent.”)

But Rogers said he doesn’t see it as his job to say why something is trending. Instead, the information is intended as a launching point for journalists who may want to address a Googled question directly for readers or dig deeper to see if there’s a story lurking behind a breakout term.

The newsletter also featured graphs and visualizations free for reporters to screenshot or embed. From their special debate edition:

The recently launched Journalist Studio, a collection that Google says will help reporters do their work “more efficiently, creatively, and securely,” includes another tool worth noting.

Pinpoint uses artificial intelligence and machine learning technology to help researchers sift through investigative materials. Built with journalists in mind, the tool can be used on public collections, like the trove of papers on Afghanistan released by The Washington Post, or private sets that you want to upload yourself.

Megan Chan, news ecosystem lead at Google, said the technology is exactly the type of resource-saving tool she was on the hunt for as director of digital operations at The Washington Post and, before that, director of product at Politico.

The tool is more than a super-powered “Ctrl+F.” Pinpoint uses optical character recognition and speech-to-text technologies to scour PDFs, photos, e-mails and audio files.

Chan showed me that Pinpoint could decipher a messily handwritten name on a scanned document and infer which Kennedy brother was being referred to on second reference. The tool also uses synonyms to help reporters locate the information they’re looking for; search for “firearm” and you’ll get “gun” and “rifle” references, too.

As Chan wrote:

The tool has already proven useful for investigative projects like USA TODAY’s report on 40,600 COVID-19-related deaths tied to nursing homes and Reveal’s look into the COVID-19 “testing disaster” in ICE detention centers, as well as a Washington Post piece about the opioid crisis. Pinpoint’s speed also helped reporters with shorter-term projects like Philippines-based Rappler’s examination of CIA reports from the 1970s and breaking news situations like the Mexico-based Verificado MX’s quick fact checking of the government’s daily pandemic updates.

Because you can filter documents by location, organization, or person, Pinpoint can show local journalists the documents that are most relevant to their readers. The Baltimore Sun, for example, used the tool to find letters showing that federal agents blamed Martin Luther King Jr. for violence in Baltimore among the tens of thousands of documents related to President John F. Kennedy’s assassination released by the National Archives.

You can request access to the Pinpoint tool — and the rest of the Journalist Studio tools — here.

Illustration by XKCD used under a Creative Commons license.

Sarah Scire is deputy editor of Nieman Lab. You can reach her via email (, Twitter DM (@SarahScire), or Signal (+1 617-299-1821).
POSTED     Oct. 27, 2020, 12:45 p.m.
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