Opinion – Once upon a time, writers made phone calls, talked to people and wrote news. Google has stopped all that nonsense.
These days, what are now laughingly referred to as ‘journalists’ slavishly follow someone else’s leads. While this is hardly new – journalists have been avoiding work whenever possible since the dawn of time – what is rather more worrying is that they aren’t following another writer who’s stumbled across a scoop, they’re following an algorithm. And an algorithm that’s owned by one company.
Google News is an enigma wrapped in a mystery and remains completely impenetrable to almost everyone.
While news aggregation sites have been around for years – the excellent NewsNow being one example – up until now they have managed to avoid having news agendas of their own. Luckily for us, Google is famously not evil at all, so is obviously just trying to help out by deciding which stories hit its front page and those that are consigned to the electronic spike of destiny.
But we learn from the self-same Google News, that all decisions as to what hits the front page and what hits the cutting room floor are made not by a skilled editor, but that “The selection and placement of stories on this page were determined automatically by a computer program.”
Well, that all sounds jolly impartial until one realises that all programs are written by people and this one was written by people paid by Google.
This is how it works.
Writer A knocks out a story about company B. He or she is the first person to write about it. About six hours later, when other writers around the world wake up on the sofa, wipe the sleep from their eyes and pick their way through the empty bottles on the floor from last night’s excesses and turn on their PCs, they do a swift rewrite, find a picture on Wikimedia Commons and file their own version.
This immediately leaps to the top of Google News because it’s newer than the piece from the poor bastard who broke the story in the first place.
Or at least sometimes.
If you work for the right people – say, the BBC or the New York Times, your story – however unoriginal – makes it to the top regardless of whether you’ve actually added anything new. It’s almost as if – and I’m not making any allegations here – they’d paid Google for top billing. God forbid that such a thought should cross anyone’s mind.
The mysterious Google program has obviously made its own, completely impartial, choice on the matter of whose story becomes the splash and whose is relegated to the bottom of the list of 295 related stories.
It has done this by checking how many characters are in the headline, not by actually checking if there are any new facts in the story itself and by looking for instances of today’s secret words. If you can second guess what the key words for today are, you can get your story right up there with no bother. ‘Skank’ usually works quite well, as does ‘Blackberry’, ‘iPhone’ and ‘Microsoft security blunder’.
Try it for yourself – file a piece with the headline “Microsoft security blunder trashes skank’s iPhone” and see what happens.
You can try all sorts of stuff, like waiting until the US wakes up before filing your stories, but if the algorithm says ‘no’, you might as well have stayed in bed.
While this sorry state of affairs would – and should – be laughable, because every hack in the world, his dog and indeed cat hang on every pixel displayed on Google News, no one is writing any real news any more.
They’re waiting for some other poor sucker to do the leg work and then come up with a snappier headline and join in playing Google News Bingo.
But of course, the really scary thing about this is that Google says it’s all controlled by a piece of software. This is arrant nonsense.
Is it not blindingly-obvious that, somewhere, in a secret hideaway in an extinct volcano equipped with a monorail, boasting comprehensive missile launch facilities staffed by midgets and implausibly-named, pneumatic women in swimsuits, the board of Google is laughing demonically while stroking a large white cat.
For they are deciding what the truth is and what you will read.