Google, Journalism, and Power

Reading about Google and its maps in this article from the Atlantic has me thinking about power — specifically, who has it, and what that means for those of us who don’t.

Google really has revolutionized the way we see the world. We can literally watch it from our desktop computers. Remember when Google Earth launched, and suddenly you were able to digitally see your house from the street view?

And it’s not been a walk in the park to develop this technology for Google. What’s revealed in the article is that it’s not actually a mess of computer algorithms that’s making these intricate maps as I would have expected, but rather a massive cohort of human beings working every day. With all the manpower, what does that mean for the competition? With Google’s jump start on making the world digital (think about their fleet of Street View cars out on the roads), and the fact that it takes “hundreds of operators to map a country,” is there any hope of a competitor catching up? One “competitor” mentioned in the article is Open Street Map, something I’ve never heard of. And they don’t even have Google’s street view feature.

The entire mapping project is called Ground Truth. It’s kind of an eerie name to me. Is Google creating the truth about the way we see the world around us? Do they have too large a stake in that? I’m starting to think Google will go from mapping the world to taking over the world. And I’m only half joking.

And let’s not forget about the little-known feature called the Google search engine. Arguably the most popular search engine the Internet has to offer, Google has the potential to dictate what information we see. This has obvious connections with theories related to journalism: in “making the news,” journalists are responsible for telling the public what’s important, what’s going on, and what to be knowledgeable about. But is Google helping to mediate what news we see? Mentioned in the News lab blog post, Google features are “…designed to assist reporters in researching, reporting, and distributing the news as well as with engaging audiences.”

What do you all think? What does the relationship between journalists and massive digital presences like Google look like in the future, especially since print journalism is slowly growing more obsolete?

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5 Responses to “Google, Journalism, and Power”

  1. You ask a lot of questions in this; I am going to focus on the one regarding the maps and the man power behind it.

    This article actually fit, coincidentally, very well with another class I am taking for PitE, ENVRION 309- Intro to Geographic Information Systems (GIS). GIS is essentially, the science/art of collecting, mapping, and analyzing spatial data (i.e., exactly what Google Maps does). A lot of the mistakes mentioned in the article, like the first one where the road lines didn’t match up with the roads, are the ones we are learning how to avoid and/or correct in the class.

    And from my (limited) experience, this stuff is very hard to do. Errors tend to propagate (meaning that making one mistake makes it more likely that another one will happen in the future), and when making maps for road navigation, precision has to be to the meters level (being on a freeway or its exit ramp makes all the difference in the world). In fact, I find that this article understated the difficulty of pulling this off.

    This leads me to answer another of your questions: yes, it will be hard for other companies to catch up. The amount of initial work that is required to even get something remotely presentable is enormous. Plus, even if another brand (say, Apple maps) does make something that works the brand name of “Google” will still make it hard for anyone to convert to another mapping app.

  2. Wow Brie what an interesting idea! I have honestly never considered the fact that big corporations like Google have a stake in what is “truth” and what news reaches us. However, I must at least hope that most journalists will look for information outside of the internet or search engines like Google. Google can connect a journalist to credible sources, but it cannot make up credible sources altogether. Additionally, it’s always been true that information that made it to the masses with filtered, just before it was filtered by Google it was mostly filtered by book publishers. I guess this has me wondering, does Google have the power to pick and choose what comes up when someone searches? As in, is it possible for Google to limit certain information to coming up on Google?

  3. I also have never heard of OpenStreetMap, but I tried checking it out to see how it compared to Google Maps. Of course the first thing that popped into my head to search was my house address. But no matter how I phrased my address, I could not get OpenStreetMap to recognize my house. I got it to recognize other addresses, but it made me wonder what was the point of this website if they are lacking information? I’m not sure how much they are missing, but if they do not recognize my house I am sure they are missing others as well. If this is Google Maps only competitor, I’m pretty sure that they are in good shape. Something I did like about OpenStreetMap is that it claims to be driven by a community of mappers and its contributors are able to verify that their maps are up to date. I personally am not worried that Google is creating it’s own truth, but if one was worried this might be a decent alternative, even though it might not contain as much information as Google.

  4. I found this article super interesting, as well as all of your follow-up questions. The idea that the project is called “Ground Truth” is surprising to me, but gives some insight into what Google is trying to accomplish. Their idea of collecting as much data as they possibly can, or “more data is better data,” which they then use to create algorithms that make other operations function, is similar to how Google Translate works. I found that quite fascinating, especially that one company has been able to take charge of collecting and understanding and using this huge amount of data. The sheer number of people working on this project makes me more optimistic about the idea of “truth” being presented. I think your point about Google aiding (or interfering with) journalism is important to think about, as people will click on the first thing that pops up after a search. In that way, Google has a huge amount of control over what specific new stories are being put into the public eye, and what sources those stories are coming from. I hope that the idea of “truth” can be continually equated with Google’s practices, as I am definitely assuming that when I do a Google search, my results are an accurate representation of what is out there. I hope that with the amount of people working on this project, and the amount of Google users everyday, that Google will stay an impartial judge, delivering to us information as it stands, with no biases in the way.

  5. I think this article does a great job showing the massive collection of data Google is building. The comparison the article made to the Borgesian map was valid in showing the scope of their map data. I also thought the use of progressive images of maps during the creation process effectively showed the great deal of human effort required to achieve Google’s final product. This human effort is what sets their maps ahead of the nonexistent competition, and I agree that it is worrisome. Google may in the future have control over too much data, and who gets to see it. Although they may have the ability to manipulate what news articles show up online, self driving cars using Google’s maps could have many benefits. This article from the Washington Post (link below) shows how in the future self driving cars will reduce pollution and deaths from car accidents. Would the environmental benefits outweigh the possible monopoly Google could have on online journalism?

    https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2013/03/30/will-self-driving-cars-solve-all-our-energy-problems-or-create-new-ones/

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