Is Google Making Journalists Sloppy?

By | February 19, 2004

Interesting piece from MediaBistro about how journalists use Google searches as a fast and loose way to prove a point.

The article doesn’t pull its punches. “What’s a simpler, or faster, way of quantifying a trend,” writes Lionel Beehner, “than typing a key word or phrase into Google? Type in almost any person, place, or thing, and Google will bounce back to you a neat numerical value that calculates that person, place, or thing’s importance to this world.” Beehner’s conclusion: “ Sad to say, plugging Google in a story has become almost a telltale sign of sloppy reporting, a hack’s version of a Rolodex.”

I’d certainly agree that in most of the examples cited, there could be a better way of gauging the popularity of something, whether it’s Britney Spears haters or building backyard ice rinks. Just to say a phrase or name is popular, widespread or a major trend because of the number of Google hits may not only be sloppy, but also faulty logic. But Google searches do have a value. You’ve just got to understand that what you’re searching is the Internet: a lop-sided, top-heavy, chaotic library of information gathered in the past 10 years or so.

When Beehner ridicules an LA Times journalist for describing a sports writer as ‘distinguished’ just because his name brings back 21,000 hits, I think he’s probably right. (Depending on whether the search results were throwing up his writings, discussion about his writings, complaints about his writings or references to his collections of Lego wine bottles, I would have used ‘prolific’, ‘oft-cited’, ‘eccentrically hobbied’ or whatever.) But when he has a go at another LAT journalist who uses Google to show there are “793 websites devoted to” Audrey Hepburn a decade after her death, I would raise an objection. Does ‘devoted to’ just mean references, as in movie listings (her career, after all, did span five decades) or are these fan sites? If the latter, I would say that’s a fair statistic.

Bottom line: Journalism has changed a lot with the Internet. The values underpinning it haven’t. Google is a great resource, and what it tells us, both in specifics (sites to go to) and in aggregate (results), is useful stuff. But next time you read a Google search as a piece of reporting to back up a statement, take a closer look.

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