Monday, September 15, 2008

The Butterfly Effect

On September 7th, a little past midnight, someone somewhere logged on to the Sun Sentinel website and clicked on the headline, “United Airlines Files for Bankruptcy”, originally published in the Chicago Tribune. With web traffic low at the time, the article ended up in the “Popular Business Stories: Most Viewed” section of the site. In less than a minute, the Google News automated scan picked up the article and added it to its index, with the current date. Monday morning, an Income Security Advisors employee searched “Bankruptcy” on Google news, found the article, and sent out a summary to Bloomberg financial news, the go-to source for stock brokers. It took less than a few minutes for United Airlines stock to crash from $15 to $3 wiping out around $1 billion of United Airline market value. The problem? The article was dated 2002.

The blame throwing has begun. Of course Google defended itself vehemently. The Tribune is responsible for properly dating the articles on its website. The Tribune shifted blame to back Google Inc’s inability to separate breaking news from popular stories. According to Shelly Palmer of the Huffington Post, Bloomberg is developing a history for erroneous news, including a premature obituary for Steve Jobs. Maybe it was the investment researcher, who clearly hadn’t read the entire article. “The December 10, 2002, story contains information that would clearly lead a reader to the conclusion that it was related to events in 2002,” justified the Tribune's press release. Maybe the media is to blame. The power of the media to fuel the speculation that drives the economy is undeniable. Theories are popping up in comments on Mike Nizza's blog:

This should come as no surprise to anyone in the United States. The media has far too much power, far too broad a reach, and far too little by way of fairness, integrity, and professionalism. And just think, if this degree of damage can be done to a company by three media outlets, imagine the damage being done to our political system on a daily basis?

Maybe the Internet is just not ready to be a trusted news source. The osmosis of news from traditional news websites to search engines may not be as smooth as we hoped.

Maybe the problem is the way we read the news. Internet news has made scanning the surface the new way. Instead of delving into stories, links and hyper links have made it possible to flit from story to story, draw conclusions from headlines and teasers and consider ourselves well-informed. With the blogosphere siphoning readers away from traditional news outlets, the onus of ensuring source credibility has now been shifted to the consumer. Maybe, just maybe, we are to blame.

An increasingly powerful media and an increasingly lazy reader - we are probably doomed anyway. But since we are at it, assigning blame here, there and everywhere, hell,why not blame the guy who started it all. What was he doing searching for six year old bankruptcy stories on a Saturday night anyway!


M. Dery said...

Funny kicker. Question: What's the source of the anecdote in your lede graf? Why not cite your source by linking to it?
And: Who's Mike Nizza? Inquiring minds want to know.
Bones to Pick:
"Maybe the Internet is just not ready to be a trusted news source." Whoah! That's quite a leap. Does it logically follow that, because a Bloomberg drone passed on a bum tip that made United's stock tank, the Net is utterly untrustworthy? Isn't this a reminder, rather, that the burden of vetting information falls increasingly on the reader? If a trusted source of news doesn't cite Its sources---had Bloomberg done so, vigilant readers could have clicked through to the story and seen that it was out of date---well, caveat lector. Sources that don't cite sources have zero credibility.
Also, journalists need to solidly sandbag their assertions with specific facts. For example:
"Internet news has made scanning the surface the new way." Says who? Is this truly the way most people read? A reasonable assertion, but the wary reader lives in a reality-based world, not a faith-based one. Meaning: show me a credible study that proves it.

Anonymous said...

When news is no longer new, businesses get desperate.

As we've discussed earlier, the purpose of getting the information (accurately) to the readers is no longer the main goal at hand here. During my sophomore year, the companies of my internships concerned themselves with only one thing.It's all about ratings, raking in the website traffic to beat out the competition. It's survival of the fittest in this new medium. You either sink or swim. If a website doesn't keep up with the latest and hottest "scoop" it'll get canceled because of losing its readership.

At one company, my editors used google analytics, to study which page its readers visited the most. In another company, web builders focused on increasing viewer numbers by designing innovative things like car slide shows for images, designed to fly to the next page in less than 3 seconds just enough for the viewer to glimpse at the image, but directly leads you to the next page/image, increasing the number of clicks and page visits. When that happens, the blurb or paragraph on the same page is simply disregarded.

Leave the newbie intern to fact-check freelancer articles and copy and paste AP stories off for its website.

And who needs "accurate news" on a page anymore when we have flashing images and sound bites being fed to us?

Anonymous said...

Also, your blog post brings up an interesting point of the media in general. Not just internet as being untrustworthy.

I call it the death of investigative journalism, when everyone is just riding on the same bus, never questioning facts and echoing off each other.

I thought this page might of interest:

The writer of the thread argues that the "corporate media" is simply quoting Bush back in 2007 when he said that the six warheads flown across US was just a mistake. Nothing more.

Rhea A said...

Mike Nizza writes for the
“The Lede”
a New York Times Blog that covers what it calls “notes on the news”. The comment was by a David L.

The internet is undoubtedly a powerful tool for the dissemination and consumption of news. The problem is not the technology but that traditional news websites are still not able to correctly use the technology, causing such glitches. According to the NY Times, “many newspaper companies have not fully learned to work in a world where many people are coming to their sites through a search instead of through their own front doors.”
Besides, advertising revenues are becoming increasingly important. Any article to show up on a Google search translates into large advertising revenues for the news website. At the risk of sounding cynical, news websites may in fact benefit from tricking readers into clicking on the link to their site.
This means that fact checking is now the responsibility of the reader. The question is, are we ready as readers for that kind of responsibility?
A British Library / JISC Study titled Information Behavior of the Researcher of the Future begs to differ. According to the study search engines like Google have changed the face of research:
"Both students and staff share a general tendency to shallow, horizontal, 'flicking' behavior in digital libraries. Power browsing and viewing are the norm for all: reading appears to be only occasionally undertaken online, more often offline or not at all."
While the study does deal with academic research and not specifically news, it may be safe to extend these conclusions to the way we read the news as well. This could well be the
death of investigative journalism