Google has changed its search algorithm to privilege “original reporting”, and will back the change with alterations in other guidelines. The idea is to ensure that “readers interested in the latest news can find the story that started it all”, while “publishers can benefit from having their original reporting more widely seen”.
What does this mean, and why was this necessary?
The problem of ‘inspired’ reports
Ever since the 24X7 digital news era removed the protection that the “exclusive” scoop enjoyed for at least a day in the age of print, media organisations have expressed frustration over the unfairness of a situation in which a good reporter sees her hard work of days (perhaps weeks or months) being devalued within hours of the story being published — by an “inspired” or “follow-up” report by another organisation that ends up garnering about as much, or even more, traffic online.
These follow-ups or re-hashes aren’t strictly plagiarism, so they cannot be proceeded against legally; indeed, they may even credit the original report. But by making the content shorter or easier to grasp, or by adding some token “new” elements, they are able to attract large numbers of readers for whom going to the original report may not be that important. Smaller organisations, or reporters who aren’t already big names, are the worst sufferers of this situation — especially in noisy and frequently unethical media environments like India, where the same story may be sold as an “exclusive” by half a dozen channels.
The ‘solution’ offered by Google
In a blog post titled ‘Elevating original reporting in Search’, Richard Gingras, Google’s VP, News, said Thursday:
“An important element of the coverage we want to provide [through Google Search] is original reporting, an endeavour which requires significant time, effort and resources by the publisher, (and) deep investigative pursuits (by reporters)…
“Recently, we’ve made ranking updates and published changes to our search rater guidelines to help us better recognize original reporting, surface it more prominently in Search and ensure it stays there longer.” This, Gingras said, “means readers interested in the latest news can find the story that started it all, and publishers can benefit from having their original reporting more widely seen”.
To illustrate the update, Gingras said, “we instruct raters to use the highest rating, ‘very high quality’, for original news reporting that provides information that would not otherwise have been known had the article not revealed it. Original, in-depth, and investigative reporting requires a high degree of skill, time, and effort.”
Raters have also been asked “to consider the publisher’s overall reputation for original reporting”. To illustrate, Gingras wrote: “For example, you might find that a newspaper (with an associated website) has won journalistic awards. Prestigious awards, such as the Pulitzer Prize award, or a history of high quality original reporting are strong evidence of positive reputation.”
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The global media context
The giant internet companies, including Google, have over the last several years faced antitrust investigations in multiple countries — one reason is the outsize influence they wield over the digital news industry. There have been complaints that Google’s search results have often failed to acknowledge or reward investments in journalism; also, Google-owned YouTube and other tech platforms have been accused of hosting sensational, irresponsible, or inflammatory content.