The Los Angeles Times recently flagged a troublesome trend at Google News. After an abundance of glowing coverage about the California Central Basin's new recycled water system started showing up in Google News, The Times found proof that the search giant had been duped by a site called News Hawks Review. Sam Allen (a human journalist) reported on Tuesday that Google News (a mixture of human and robot journalists) had included content produced by a corporate communications firm in their collection of news sites. Google promptly reacted by pulling the site out off of their list of trusted news sources.
The controversy in California boils down a simple judgement call, one that human journalists make countless times daily when sifting through press releases in their inboxes. To be included in Google's list of news sources, all you have to do is ask. "If you'd like your news site or blog to be included in Google News, please send us the URL and we'll be happy to review it," reads the site's help page for publisher. "Please note, however, that we can't guarantee we'll be able to include your site in Google News."
It now seems that Google News's gatekeepers also can't guarantee that the sites in Google News are actual news sites. A quick look at News Hawks Review shows that it's super suspicious. Despite some attempts to show a diversity of coverage--an uplifting story about a heart transplant recipient, a post about college sports--there's an odd amount of very specific and very positive coverage about the California Bay Delta Project. We're not talking one or two stories about the local water supply. A whopping 13 out of the 15 most recent stories are about the Central Basin Water District. The headlines are unambiguously slanted. "California Bay Delta Project--A Key To California’s Water Infrastructure" reads one; "Why Does the California Bay Delta Matter To Southern California?" reads another. Meanwhile, the half-baked "About Us" section does not instill confidence in the site's authority. "NewsHawkReivew.com is an Internet News Site with up to date news articles," it reads "If it's news we do our best to report it."
Sam Allen reports on the shady results about the Central Basin's new water system:
What the average reader doesn't know is that Central Basin is paying nearly $200,000 in taxpayer money for the glowing coverage. In a highly unusual move, the water district hired a consultant to produce promotional stories "written in the image of real news," according to agreements reviewed by The Times.
The articles appear on a professional-looking news website called News Hawks Review. The site is indexed on Google News, carries its own advertisements and boasts an "experienced and highly knowledgeable" staff of editors and reporters. But records show it is directly affiliated with a corporate communications firm under contract with Central Basin.
But the site does not report news; it publishes press releases made to look like news. The consultant behind the project bluntly said so in a letter to the local government who hired him to boost the public opinion about their water project. "All of us know that getting positive news coverage about the agency is a very difficult challenge," he wrote. "The solution? How about our own news outlet."
The Times's revealing the site to be a public relations effort is certainly embarrassing for the local officials who used taxpayer dollars to fool taxpayers, but it's even more embarrassing to Google. The famously machine-driven information empire has been struggling to add a human touch to a number of its products, especially Google News. Megan Garber at Harvard's Nieman Journalism Lab wrote about a recent effort to include hand-selected "Editor's Picks" in the Google News results, widely hailed as Google's effort to humanize their news gathering process. All the while, the human safeguard Google had built in from the beginning--depending on their employees to spot frauds--isn't working.
This isn't the first time Google has pulled a source from its estimated list of 30,000 to 50,000 sources and some experts worry that it won't be the last. "The bigger issue is, if this site's getting away with it, are there other sites getting away with it?" Danny Sullivan, editor of the industry specific Search Engine Land, asked The Times. "Maybe Google needs to review what they're allowing."
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.