In Google we trust
First Monday

In Google we trust: Information integrity in the digital age by Lee Shaker



Abstract
This paper considers information safety and accuracy in the digital age using Google as an entry point. In doing so, it explores the role media play in shaping the relationship of information, privacy, and trust between Google and the public. This inquiry is undertaken using framing theory to guide a content analysis of the way Google is presented in New York Times articles from a two–year period ending in November 2005. Analysis of the extensive coverage of Google’s share price and earnings reports leads to the conclusion that trust in Google is fostered in part simply by reports of its fiscal success. To the extent that this is true, meaningful public debate about information policies is inhibited.

Contents

Introduction
Information integrity and Google
Framing
Methods and findings
Discussion
Conclusion

 


 

Introduction

On any given day, more than 60 million American adults use an online search engine — a number that is rapidly increasing. Among search engines, Google is visited the most — by as many as 89.8 million unique visitors in one month (Rainie, 2005). Google’s rising traffic, continuing development of successful business models, and improving accuracy and depth has significant implications for the way that the Internet is experienced and organized. Beyond this, as Google grows entrenched as a central hub of Internet use, the company’s role as an arbiter of information becomes increasingly important.

In the shift to a data environment dominated by the Internet, there are important questions about information integrity — the credibility of information provided and the safety or privacy of information collected. No matter what the source, it is important for the audience to know the provenance and accuracy of information that is provided. In two–way exchanges that occur on the Internet, it is also necessary for data collected about individuals to be used appropriately. In evaluating information from traditional media outlets, certain expectations and understandings about reporting, objectivity, and bias have been established over time. Because of this, a shorthand assessment of credibility may involve simply trust in the institutional framework of the media as a whole, the individual outlet at hand, or even the author of a single story in the place of repeated critical inquires. In other words, capital developed over time by the media source formed the reputational trust that legitimized information.

This capital is still in its embryonic stages in the rapidly evolving online mediascape. The structure of a media institution in the online world is still in flux, but, for online media companies, it is vitally important to cultivate stable relationships with users. For example, in its free–to–the–public form, Google is totally dependent on providing a critical mass of users to advertisers. Since Google traffics in public information, the audience must believe that the company serves up ‘better’ information than competitors and protects users’ interests. Put simply, to draw the audience necessary to flourish, Google must cultivate the public’s trust.

On any given day, more than 60 million American adults use an online search engine ...

An extensive body of scholarly literature relates to privacy, trust, and new information media. This work rises from an array of perspectives, among which are: cultural theorists (Elmer, 2004), communication scholars (Danna and Gandy, 2002; Phillips, 2003), sociologists (Lyon, 2003), computer scientists (Riegelsberger, et al., 2003), and marketers and economists (Kracher, et al., 2005; Cheskin Research, 1999). Drawing upon these works, this paper seeks to explore the role media play in shaping the relationship of information, privacy, and trust between Google and the public. This inquiry is undertaken using framing theory (Pan and Kosicki, 1993; Scheufele, 1999) to guide a content analysis of the way Google is presented in New York Times articles from a two–year period ending in November, 2005. While media coverage is far from the only component in the formation of trust, it does contribute to the process. Analysis of the extensive coverage of Google’s share price and earnings reports leads to the conclusion that trust in Google is to some extent fostered simply by its fiscal success.

 

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Information integrity and Google

Though most of its services are nominally free to the consumer, Google is an e–commerce vendor. The advertiser–driven model that the company adheres to mimics that of broadcast radio and television stations: create and convey information product to an audience, capture their attention, and package their eyeballs for sale to advertisers. Beyond search, Google now offers a myriad of products. Gmail, Google Talk, and Froogle are prominent examples of the extension of the company’s targeted–advertising model. Though similar to broadcast businesses, Google clearly diverges from this model in one critical way: the nature of the Internet requires information to flow two ways, placing Google in a position to collect vast databases of information describing who and how people use their services.

The virtual nature of interactions between individuals and Google causes the trust relationship to be less intuitive than those developed in the physical world — no physical goods change hands, no handshakes to base faith on (Mutz, 2005). Trust in this disembodied exchange operates in two areas of information integrity. First, the service rendered must satisfy the promise of a service offered. Put in other words, a search must return accurate, credible information quickly. Second, the ancillary details of the transaction must not be harnessed by Google in a manner that damages the user. Because each interaction spawns an array of transaction–generated information (TGI), users rely on Google to act appropriately after the fact. As John Battelle puts it,

“That’s a pretty large helping of trust we’re asking [Google] to ladle onto their corporate plate. And I’m not sure either we or they are entirely sure what to do with the implications of such a transfer. Just thinking about these implications makes a reasonable person’s head hurt.” [1]

In the following two sections, research describing privacy concerns and the formation and importance of trust is explored to provide context for my subsequent analysis.

Privacy

In his seminal book The Panoptic Sort, Oscar Gandy describes the development of “complex technology that involves the collection, processing, and sharing of information about individuals and groups that is generated through their daily lives as citizens, employees, and consumers and is used to coordinate and control their access to the goods and services that define life in the modern capitalist economy.” [2] In a word, this “dataveillance” process is embodied by the Internet. Here, data collection, processing, and sharing merges seamlessly with the daily actions of citizens, employees, and consumers as interactions occur between the server and terminal computers. Each user has the capability to methodically record precise records of her actions; at the same time, each vendor has the ability to collect data on every interaction.

Each user has the capability to methodically record precise records of her actions; at the same time, each vendor has the ability to collect data on every interaction.

Though both user and vendor have the ability to record TGI, the usefulness of this ability is not equal for individuals and institutions. It may be convenient for an individual to automatically record the articles she reads or archive the purchases she makes — possibilities made feasible by Google Desktop and Gmail. A particularly astute computer user may even want to monitor how much time he spends with certain applications or Web sites — but so far this requires specialized software that is not widely available. Recording data is not difficult — to a certain extent, it happens by default — but to make sense of this data, sophisticated analysis is necessary. It is this step that reveals the differences in the utility of databases for individuals versus institutions (Zarsky, 2002). While the individual is largely restricted to manually culling through the limited data that describes their behavior, institutions have terabytes of data stored and vast amounts of processing power available to churn through it. This scrutiny results in social sorting that “sieves and sorts for the purpose of assessment, of judgment. It thus affects people’s lifestyle choices — if you won’t accept the cookie that reports your surfing habits to the parent company, don’t expect that information or access will be available ... .” [3]

The utility of data describing the audience is twofold for information vendors like Google. First, greater knowledge of each consumer can precipitate price discrimination (Odlyzko, 2003). The ability to effectively price–discriminate promises an increase in profit. By ascertaining what each potential consumer is willing and able to pay for a product and adjusting the price accordingly, vendors gain the ability to wring each drop of profit out of every interaction (Baker, 2002). The second benefit relates to the other available revenue stream for media companies: advertising. As a commodity, “the audience has scarcely any value if it cannot be defined in some way (in terms of demographic make–up or at least in terms of size).” [4] Dataveillance yields a wealth of information that allows analysis to inductively construct the audience for sale. Thus, it takes an unintelligible mass and renders it into easily discernible, legible categories for advertisers to target.

The risks attached to dataveillance are well documented in scholarly literature. Even though databases are often largely constructed with information that is not inherently sensitive about actions that occur publicly, discrimination and damage may still flow from the analysis and application of findings (Nissenbaum, 1998). To understand this, it is critical not to dissociate data from the people it describes — “any data might be sensitive, depending upon the context in which it is used” — not the context in which it is collected [5]. Zarsky (2002) provides a useful overview of the social impacts of dataveillance and it is clear that the possible outcomes are never clear–cut. In addition, he suggests that datamining does not precipitate entirely new outcomes so much as augment and expedite processes that already exist.

The two most complicated issues Zarsky examines are the likelihood of discrimination and the threat to autonomy. Of the former, he believes that it is possible to view the effect that datamining tools would have on discrimination based on race or other personal traits “;in a different light, and possibly find that the use of such applications should be encouraged” because they might be ameliorative [6]. Not everyone is so sanguine, however, and some see dataveillance and the analysis it leads to as inherently discriminatory particularly for poor people (Raab and Bennett, 1998). Zarsky himself notes that the notion of beneficial price discrimination is threatened by the occurrence of market failures. Regarding the threat to autonomy, Zarsky is concerned. Interestingly, the hazard here develops without vendor malice. Essentially, as technology is employed to customize and enhance services, diversity decreases and with it liberty is weakened (Sunstein, 2001). For both the individual and society, this is clearly a deleterious consequence.

As a company that organizes information at its core, Google has not been sufficiently examined in this context. To begin with, Google maintains server records for every search term used, every Web site visited, and the IP address and browser associated with these actions (Mills, 2005). Google’s other services are not innocuous either. Gmail, in return for free access to a large amount of server space, scans every e–mail and provides targeted advertisements based on the words within them (Orlowski, 2004b). If logged in, the account created to use Gmail carries over to use of Froogle or Google Scholar, linking academic and consumer searches with a unique user regardless of the computer used. To complete the profile, Google also offers orkut, a social networking site where registrants may post pictures, interests, and other personal information.

At the same time, Google’s resistance to a consumer–friendly privacy policy is well documented and suspicious. Gmail’s initial privacy policy stated, “The contents of your Gmail account also are stored and maintained on Google servers in order to provide the service. Indeed, residual copies of e–mail may remain on our systems, even after you have deleted them from your mailbox or after the termination of your account” (Orlowski, 2004b). After public outcry, retention was limited to 60 days — ostensibly the time required to purge the system. Orkut’s privacy policy was similarly strident: “By submitting, posting or displaying any Materials on or through the orkut.com service, you automatically grant to us a worldwide, non–exclusive, sublicenseable, transferable, royalty–free, perpetual, irrevocable right to copy, distribute, create derivative works of, publicly perform and display such Materials” (Orlowski, 2004a). Google’s overarching privacy policy is now in its third iteration, having grown substantially more detailed in the wake of these incidents. While more substantial, reading the privacy policy makes it clear that it is a document to protect the company’s interests first, to reassure users second, and protect users lastly.

The extent to which leakage between Google’s services exists and whether it leads to profiles is impossible to know — the services may be totally discrete, there might not be any profiling. It is also possible to view even Gmail’s AdWords service as anti–discriminatory. Rather than aiming advertisements on the basis of presumed demographic knowledge and the attendant stereotypes, AdWords targets wholly (and automatically) on the presence of words in an e–mail — no matter who the sender or recipient may be. Even if Google were entirely beneficent, it is also conceivable to imagine a security breach similar to the recent incident involving Equifax [7]. Another feasible outcome is the (unintended) political balkanizing described by Sunstein (2001) that may develop through use of personalized, intelligent Google (now in beta). Either way, discourse evaluating the changing information landscape and Google’s prominent role within it is necessary.

Trust

Trust is a concept that is fundamental and disparate, intuitive and indescribable. Though utterly intangible, some parameters bounding trust can be established. First, the interaction must be voluntary and choice must exist (Deutsch, 1962). Second, trust is only relevant to the extent that uncertainty about the interaction exists (Duda, 2004). These guidelines excluded instances in which the relationship between actors may be skewed such that fear or faith fills the role of trust. The decision to participate in some sort of exchange may be the result of painstaking consideration or an unconscious heuristic, but either way the resulting presence of trust provides the framework for the interaction to proceed (Good, 1988). Depending on the relationship and context, the precise character of trust varies. This said, at root, trust may be thought of as the expectations that emerge when a truster’s “perception of the trustee’s competence [is] defined as the technical ability or expertise to perform the expected behavior,” combined with the belief that the trustee will not exact harm [8].

In business, trust is a critical component of success. For a consumer to participate in an exchange with a business, she must trust that the goods or services will be rendered as promised and that there will not be negative, unforeseen consequences (Koehn, 1996). To develop this trust, businesses may rely on a host of factors including their physical presence, reputation, membership in trade organizations, or sanctioning from government (Kracher, et al., 2005). Ultimately, trust is developed over time and is the accumulation of experience gained through many disparate interactions (Dasgupta, 1988).

In e–commerce, “trust has been posited as the most important element” of successful exchanges [9]. Trust in an online environment has two important obstacles not found in offline interactions (Riegelsberger, et al., 2003). First, risk is inherently higher in mediated interactions. Intermediation forces the necessity of higher a priori trust because less information is readily available. To compound this problem, it is possible that there are critical differences — linguistic, cultural, or locational — between the actors that complicate the exchange. Second, the interaction is complicated by the intervention of the enabling technologies. Though these technologies are used to facilitate the interaction, they are an additional level of friction that requires attention.

In spite of these obstacles, the speed, ease, and accessibility offered by the application of information technologies are persuasive reasons to use them in commercial transactions. Gaining trust in an online environment is necessary, and while some characteristics of developing trust are similar to those necessary for bricks–and–mortar commerce, there are differences. In a Cheskin Research (1999) study, six components for cultivating trust online are outlined: seals of approval, brand, navigation, fulfillment, presentation, and technology. The first three items are self–explanatory; fulfillment refers to the accessibility of information about billing, shipping, and returns; presentation refers to the design interface and the connotation of professionalism; and, technology refers to the presence of cutting–edge technology which evinces professionalism as well. Parsing trust and e–commerce in this way provides a useful way for understanding how trust develops. It also provides a framework for understanding discourse about an e–commerce company.

Assuming that trust is necessary to commercial success, its value may be best seen when there is reason to believe it has been lost. Three examples follow that help illuminate how media coverage affects trust, and to what consequence. In June 1999, the proposed merger of DoubleClick and Abacus, two companies engaged in online marketing, touched off a storm of protest from privacy advocates that led to an U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) investigation (Macavinta, 2000). At the time of the merger announcement, DoubleClick shares traded on the Nasdaq for about US$90; by the close of the FTC probe five months later, shares had dropped to nearly US$30 (before recovering after the FTC’s report) [10]. In 2002, Microsoft endured an antitrust suit in the United States. Like DoubleClick, Microsoft’s shares decreased in value as the story played itself out in the media, falling from about US$36 to US$21 before settlement of the suit. Annual corporate reputation quotient rankings provided by Harris Interactive may provide a more direct measure of trust in this case: Microsoft had the second–highest rating at the end of 2001 and had fallen to thirteenth at the close of 2002 (Harris Interactive, 2005). In both of these cases, government intervention surely contributed to the company’s woes, but the Harris ratings show that media coverage was a component as well.

A final example of the damages that lost trust may cause can be seen in the end of Dan Rather’s tenure as host of the CBS Evening News. After basing a report about President Bush on a forged document during the 2004 campaign, CBS and Rather endured a maelstrom of negative publicity and bottomed–out in the ratings (Johnson, 2005). Shortly thereafter, Rather announced his retirement — and CBS still lags far behind NBC and ABC in the Nielsen ratings today. In addition, just five years after acquiring CBS, in June, 2005 Viacom chose to spin CBS (and some related units) off into its own entity partly because the network was seen to be a weight on the corporation’s stock price (Swarts, 2005). All three companies deal, to some extent, with information; in all three cases, media coverage certainly precipitated public awareness and contributed to the negative ramifications. CBS, like Google, bases its business around providing information to the public. Because of this, the difficulties its news division faces after being tarnished in 2004 may be most analogous to the stakes at hand for Google.

 

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Framing

In recent years, much work has been done to clarify and create a discrete conceptualization of framing (Entman, 1993; Scheufele, 1999; D’Angelo, 2002). Even with these efforts, framing research continues to be characterized by a scattered conceptualization that conflates a range of issues (Entman, 1993). To begin with, it is important to parse between framing and framing effects: the research that follows is concerned with both, but cannot make a true claim about effects. Showing framing effects require an experimental manipulation or, at least, correlation between frames and public opinion surveys. Additionally, framing can be defined “as a strategy of constructing and processing news discourse or as a characteristic of the discourse itself” (Pan and Kosicki, 1993). Following this definition, this paper is focused on the construction of news frames.

Scheufele’s (1999) classification work on framing theory offers a 2x2 matrix for organizing framing research. Following this grid, my study can be described as one examining media frames as independent variables. Central to this work is an exploration of the components of a frame pursued because of a presumed effect on audience attitude and opinion. The empirical data provided here does not show conclusive evidence of these attitudes and opinions, but it does describe the formulation of the media frames. It is my contention that the frames created by journalists in “set parameters for policy debates not necessarily in agreement with democratic norms” by offering a particular and “structured array of signifying elements” that predicate how a news story is understood [11].

Specifically, this paper explores the syntactical, thematic, and rhetorical features of news stories (Pan and Kosicki, 1993). These elements intersect in the selection of outside sources to quote in a news story. Who is quoted, how they are identified, and where the quote is placed in the story are critically important to the impression an ‘objective’ story makes. For example, Pan and Kosicki point to the inverted pyramid structure typical of news stories as a formula that inherently shapes the understanding of information presented in a story: a fact or quote at the top of the story is simply understood to be more important than one at the close. Though not visible, the routanized nature of news gathering is also relevant in the construction of the story. As Tuchman (1978) discusses, habit, newsroom schedules, accessibility, and other internalized aspects of reporting result in the reality that some sources are more likely to be sought and quoted than others. Another perspective emphasizes the “information subsidies” attendant in this process and suggests that it is no accident that some sources are quoted more than others (Gandy, 1982; Carragee and Roefs, 2004). Regardless of the impetus, the presence of quotes from some sources paired with the absence of quotes from others irrefutably shapes the story being told.

Taking a wider view, it is also important to understand the influence of the frames in terms of the salience of the story that contains them. A narrow cognitivist view of framing may illuminate the connection between media frame audience frame, but there is danger in eliding the difference in power between stories if only the information–processing relationship is evaluated. Signals of a larger context that relates to social and political issues are also available to the audience, and they should be considered as well (Carragee and Roefs, 2004). In applying a constructionist perspective, the goal is to systematically weigh internal aspects of the news story with its placement in context so as to gain insight into how an issue is treated over time (D’Angelo, 2002).

RQ 1: What are the frames that the New York Times presents stories about Google within? Of these frames, which is dominant?
RQ 2: Who does the New York Times quote in stories about Google? Of these sources, which are most prominent?

 

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Methods and findings

Several questions about Google, trust, and information integrity have been cued by the preceding literature. To address them, I examined New York Times articles that mentioned Google in the headline or first paragraph from November, 2003 through November, 2005. Out of this 24–month window, three eight–month periods corresponding with critical events in Google’s history were delineated: November 2003–June 2004 includes coverage of Google before its initial public offering (IPO) of stock; July 2004–February 2005 includes the coverage before, during, and after the IPO; and March 2005–November 2005 includes coverage of Google’s new product introductions and overall company expansion. Of the 345 articles returned in a Lexis/Nexis search, 59 were selected through a stratified sampling strategy for close analysis and were distributed virtually evenly across the three time periods.

What kind of articles are there about Google and where were they?

For purposes of analysis, articles were coded into six categories that are described below. Of the 59 articles, there were 23 stories describing the financial or business situation of Google making this the most common type. These articles are largely characterized by discussion of Google’s IPO, its high share price, or its standing compared to competitors. Seventeen articles referred to Google in an incidental manner while discussing a wide range of other topics. Though it may seem natural to exclude these pieces from analysis, they contribute to the company’s overall image as well. Nine articles are best described as news pieces about Google — referring, for example, to a scandal about hate messages posted on orkut. The remaining 10 articles were split equally into pieces that explained the company’s technology, critically analyzed the company, or were of some other — humor, for example — type.

In these articles, it is clear that a dominant narrative exists in which Google is portrayed as an innovative and extremely successful company.

Of the 59 articles, 40 were found in the business section. Four were found in Section A, four more in the section identified as Circuits, and the remaining 11 were distributed throughout the other sections. Eighteen of the articles were found on the first page of a section. Of these 18, 12 were on the page 1 of the Business section, and two were on the front page of the A section, Circuits, or some other section. That said, of the 12 times Google was mentioned in an article on the front page of the Business section, only 4 were incidental while 5 of the 6 front–page mentions on other sections were incidental. Across the three time–periods, the findings were relatively consistent. One notable development was an increase in the number of articles in the most recent period, ending 1 November 2005. Though there were more articles, more of them referred to Google only in passing and overall depth of coverage seemed unchanged.

Immediately, this basic descriptive data yields a picture of the stories being reported about Google. These stories are generally found in the Business section and are about the company’s corporate interests. While there are some articles that discuss the products and technology that Google offers, this is not a primary focus of the pieces examined. There are even fewer stories dedicated to the impact of the company — three of 59, to be precise. Overall, the tenor of the Times’ coverage is positive. The articles are largely about Google’s dominance in the marketplace or its soaring stock price. Even the articles that only mention Google incidentally reaffirm this sentiment by referring to the company as a success story or an example of innovation while reinforcing a sense of ubiquity. In these articles, it is clear that a dominant narrative exists in which Google is portrayed as an innovative and extremely successful company.

How is this narrative constructed?

Since these are news stories, ostensibly the view of the New York Times or its employees is not conveyed in the articles examined. In fact, since these are not opinion pieces, the objective–professional standard suggests that the audience can be confident that it is receiving an equal, unbiased perspective. Despite this, a narrative is constructed by choosing what stories are told and who tells them. As the descriptive synopsis above shows, the story that is told is largely one about corporate financial success. To evaluate how this narrative is formed, I tracked every individual source that was quoted or paraphrased in direct reference to Google in the 59 articles I analyzed.

Of the 59 articles, 31 included quotes relevant to this research. In all, there were 101 unique sources included by reporters in these 31 articles [12]. Of these 101, 62 of the sources are best described as business actors, 17 as regular people (librarians, carpenters), nine as professors, five as Google employees, leaving eight disparate others remaining. Immediately, the lack of input from within Google is notable; though often sought, the company only rarely responded to interview requests. This void was filled largely by other corporate actors — venture capitalists, financial analysts, and employees of Google’s competitors were the most likely to be quoted.

In addition to having the most common voice, business interests also received the most privileged position in articles. Of the 31 pieces that included individualized sources, in 23 of them the first source was a business actor. Quotes from business actors were not restricted only to articles about finance or corporate competition. Of the 47 sources in the non–business frame articles, 14 of them were business actors. In contrast, articles of the 54 sources found in the business articles, 48 were business actors and two more were finance professors. Of the remaining four sources, one was a Google employee, and only three represented the government, non–profit watchdog groups, regular people, or other interests.

In general, no matter what the impetus for the article, it was constructed through the lens of business actors. The exception to this was coverage of Google Print. Here, a conflict arose between Google and another powerful interest — the Author’s Guild. In this case, a savvy, media–smart institution embodied the flipside to Google’s perspective and coverage in the Times reflected this. Articles covering this dispute included quotes from the Guild president, librarians, and industry analysts. This situation is unique, however, in that a legal clash developed and a perspective other than Google’s was widely articulated.

The range of topics discussed in the Times coverage — hate speech on orkut, copyright issues posed by Google Print, censorship of search results — seems to invite commentary from a disparate group of actors. From time to time, the Times did include information that depicted a range of insight and opinion about Google. Lee Rainey, director of the Pew Center’s Internet and American Life project, Cass Sunstein, a law professor at the University of Chicago, and Esther Dyson, a renowned technology pundit, were all quoted — once. In spite of this, as we have seen, the default source was a host of business actors.

 

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Discussion

A Harris Interactive poll of over 2400 Americans from July, 2005 found that the Internet was the most trusted source of information about a major purchase — aside from spouses (Herring, 2004). As a primary purveyor of this information, Google doubtlessly benefits from this high level of trust. As reported earlier, Cheskin Research (1999) identified six components for cultivating trust online: seals of approval, brand, navigation, fulfillment, presentation, and technology. Since Google eschews the seals of approval that come with membership in industry groups, that category can be removed from discussion. Navigation, fulfillment, and presentation are facets that are largely evaluated directly by the user; brand and technology, however, are affected by media coverage.

Unlike many of its competitors — Yahoo!, eBay, Excite, MSN — Google does not advertise on television or in mainstream publications (Olsen, 2005). Instead, its brand is developed through direct interactions with Internet users and through media coverage about the company. As long as this coverage continues to have a positive tenor, Google reaps the reward of untold free, positive publicity. As of now, this narrative poses Google as a tremendously successful and innovative company — qualities that burnish the company’s brand and technological profile. To the extent that this image is based largely on strong financial performance and prospects and not on critical assessments of the company’s range of activities, trust may be stimulated in the audience somewhat erroneously.

Articles discussing the potential downside of Google may be dismissed as conspiracy theory — not news. Unless an event brings an issue to the fore — the Google Print suit is a prime example — it is reasonable to wonder whether the Times should cover it at all. An argument can be made that this is not the case. In light of the numerous database break–ins recently, there is legitimate concern about the security of Google’s data. At the same time, the anti–competitive behavior of Microsoft — perhaps the closest thing to Google’s forebear — establishes a precedent for the abuses a software company can perpetrate as it grows dominant. Perhaps more feasible is the possibility that while information integrity issues may not merit separate articles, they should be discussed in the pieces that are already being printed. The fact that they are not included speaks to the critiques of the institutional nature of news (Tuchman, 1978; Gandy, 1982). A conclusion drawn from this perspective would assert that the range of analysis offered by the Times is artificially narrow.

If one accepts that information integrity merits some modicum of coverage, it is reasonable to wonder why these issues — though deeply parsed in academic and advocacy circles — fail to receive attention from the Times. Like so many other technical topics, this terrain is difficult to grasp — for both audience and reporter. Consequently, editors and reporters may conclude that the resources expended to extend coverage to these issues may not be matched by the benefit the audience will derive. With the accessibility of able sources from the Electronic Frontier Foundation or Electronic Privacy Information Center, this is not a convincing rationale. Another possibility is that Google’s stance towards the media is characterized not just by reticence but also by secrecy. Without information about the inner workings at Google, it is difficult to write a responsible story within normal journalistic norms. This does not mean that the stories should not be written at all, and, actually makes the issues seem even more salient. Perhaps most likely is the notion that ‘it’s not news until it happens.’ If this is the case, as long as that status quo reigns, there is no story. If true, this conclusion is simply dispiriting for all those who believe in journalism.

From time to time, a scandalous event — hate speech in orkut posts or anti–Semitic search results — garners coverage in the media. These topics merit coverage because they indicate a violation of an established norm; there is no equivalent norm for information integrity. Though the sway of the corporate institution continues to grow in our society, it is possible that media coverage of corporations is not developing at the same pace. After a slew of high–profile corporate scandals, perhaps an increased focus on business ethics — even before the actual flare–ups — would be fruitful. At this point, business pages and corporate coverage in general are dominated by earnings releases, product announcements, and mergers. These are stories fed by a stream of press releases; other kinds of reporting are more costly and difficult. Additionally, critics of media concentration may suggest that such coverage runs counter to big media’s interests — and that these are the only institutions that can afford sustained, in–depth coverage of day–to–day corporate behavior.

 

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Conclusion

The credibility and privacy of information are vitally important issues to modern societies. Profitability should not be substituted for a critical assessment of these values. As more people depend on the Internet for information, more questions about its reliability are raised. Though developing technologies like blogs and wikis have great promise, they also are nascent and unreliable at this point. Recent scandals over “splogging,” or spam–blogging to manipulate search results, and libelous Wikipedia entries depict these growing pains. At the same time, the lack of codified personal data protection measures continues ominously, exacerbated by secretive business practices. Until some sort of order is imposed, these issues will continue to be nettlesome for everyone engaged in online activities.

The analysis of New York Times articles included in this paper cannot completely explain the role of media coverage in the trust relationship between Google and the public. It also does not directly address issues of information integrity in the online era. It does, however, offer a window into the narrative that exists in the media regarding Google. It also gives a sense of how and where this narrative is constructed in the New York Times and, in turn, an idea of what is elided. This knowledge is the first step to understanding — and perhaps addressing — the failures and omissions in the paper’s coverage.

As research for this paper was being concluded, Harris Interactive released its 2005 reputational quotient survey findings. Seven years into its existence, Google debuted at number three on the list — outranking all but Johnson & Johnson and Coca–Cola (Alsop, 2005). In the report, respondents described Google’s ease of use, accuracy, and design — but also noted the company’s share price. In reaching the conclusion that the coverage of Google relates primarily to the company’s corporate fortunes, one wonders if trust placed in the company may be based on the wrong qualities. If profitability is the foundation of trust, then Enron looked like a stalwart of twenty–first century America — until it was revealed that the profit reports its reputation was based on were fraudulent. In other words, overly positive coverage of Google based on earnings reports and share prices does not promote a balanced understanding of the company. Without such knowledge, individuals misplace trust to some extent, exposing themselves to information risks unknowingly. End of article

 

About the author

Lee Shaker is a Ph.D. candidate at the Annenberg School for Communication, University of Pennsylvania and holds a B.A. in History from University of California, Santa Barbara. His research interests include media use, local politics, and the institutional pressures that shape new media technologies. Please direct comments or questions to lshaker [at] asc [dot] upenn [dot] edu.

 

Acknowledgments

I would like to thank Dr. Oscar Gandy for his guidance in this paper and in general and Dr. Michael X. Delli Carpini for his continuing support. In addition, I would like to thank Dr. Harold A. Drake and Nelson R. Richards for challenging my intellect and stimulating my cynicism.

 

Notes

1. Battelle, 2005, p. 15.

2. Gandy, 1993, p. 15.

3. Lyon, 2003, p. 20.

4. Arvidsson, 2004, p. 457.

5. Raab and Bennett, 1998, p. 266.

6. Zarsky, 2002, p. 15.

7. Carly Suppa, 2004. “Credit agency reports security breach,” Computerworld, at http://www.computerworld.com/securitytopics/security/story/0,10801,91319,00.html.

8. Duda, 2004, p. 48.

9. Kracher, et al., 2005, p. 131.

10. Share prices are drawn from public, historical price indices available at finance.yahoo.com.

11. D’Angelo, 2002, p. 877; Pan and Kosicki, 1993, p. 58.

12. This total was arrived at in the following manner. First, the primary topic of the article had to be Google for the quotes to be tracked — this eliminated the 17 articles that mentioned Google only incidentally. Second, press releases or other public information was not counted as a ‘unique’ source; only individuals that were sought out specifically by the reporter were included. Third, no matter how many separate quotes were in each article, each source was only counted once per article — though they may have been counted again if they were referred to in another article.

 

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Editorial history

Paper received 10 January 2006; accepted 20 March 2006.


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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.5 License.

In Google we trust: Information integrity in the digital age
by Lee Shaker
First Monday, Volume 11, Number 4 - 3 April 2006
http://firstmonday.org/ojs/index.php/fm/article/view/1320/1240





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