Today’s media landscape is oversaturated. With the sheer volume of online content, outlets race to be the first one to publish the next breaking story. If that fails, many rely on sensationalism and clickbait headlines to grab readers’ attention.
That competitive pressure creates a breeding ground for the mistakes and misleading content that has become so commonplace in the news. While some of these mistakes are harmless, others can cause lasting damage to a person’s reputation.
Unfortunately, these negative effects aren’t just confined to the outlets where the damaging article is published. They take on another life when Google ranks and widely displays that content in its search results.
That is how a local news story in a small town can end up in newsfeeds across the country.
While this isn’t necessarily a problem for content that serves the public interest, the reality is that Google’s algorithm continues to rank content that fails to meet the standards for journalism ethics.
Journalists and news publications are awarded high authority on SERPs by Google’s Search Quality Raters, often regardless of potential biases. That is because Google upholds high standards for publishers to adhere to journalism methodology, it does not consider journalism ethics as an important factor for ranking.
With Google’s shift to expertise, authoritativeness, and trustworthiness as core measures of quality, it’s time to include ethics as another key ranking factor.
How Google Ranks News
According to Google, their goal is to “always provide you with the most useful and relevant information.” That mission statement is true whether you’re searching for affordable family dinner recipes, or for information on a candidate’s political stance before an upcoming election.
To that end, they are constantly making changes and updates to their algorithms in an effort to provide more relevant content based on a user’s search query. Google uses several methods to determine which content is most relevant and useful, and this is the essence of SEO.
To better understand how this applies to journalism, we first need to look at how Google determines content rankings.
Google’s Search Quality Raters
Google uses third-party “Search Quality Raters” to evaluate the quality of search results. These raters are located all over the world and are intended to be representative of the people in their geographic location.
Raters are trained using highly specific guidelines to help them objectively measure the quality of the page’s content. They also provide feedback to help Google understand if algorithmic changes make searches more useful to its users and provide more high-quality content.
Raters identify a page’s main purpose (main content), supplementary content, and advertisements. They also check for the usability of the website, as well as the reputation of the creator or content.
Once the Rater understands the true purpose of the page, they will assign a Page Quality (PQ) rating on a sliding scale from “low” to “high.”
Page Quality Factors
Since Google’s 2018 “Medic Update,” the search engine giant has spotlighted “E-A-T” as the yardstick for measuring content quality, and these are the core factors that Search Quality Raters are trained to identify.
What is E-A-T?
E-A-T stands for “expertise, authoritativeness, and trustworthiness.” E-A-T helps Google Raters determine whether a website’s content should be trusted for quality information.
Oftentimes, the acceptable level of E-A-T for a website is based on the topics and content of the site. According to Google’s standards, for news outlets to be designated “high E-A-T” they must have established editorial policies and include “robust review processes.”
Some topics, like news articles, require a higher level of E-A-T to meet Google’s standards, and these topics are categorized under “YMYL.”
What is YMYL?
YMYL is an acronym for “Your Money or Your Life” and refers to websites or pages that could impact a person’s happiness, health, finances, or safety. Google has very high page quality rating standards for these pages. For example, a page about heart disease would need a higher level of E-A-T than one about kayaking.
Examples of YMYL topics include:
- News and current events (important topics, not leisure or entertainment related)
- Civics, legal issues, government information
- Financial information or advice, any websites involving the exchange of currency
- Health and safety
- Claims about groups of people
- “Other,” which refers to topics related to major life events or decisions
E-A-T, YMYL, and Reputation
While Google clearly values expertise, authority, and trustworthiness, it has historically turned a blind eye to ethics.
If a publication or journalist already falls under E-A-T (i.e. they are a trusted website), the content of the publication will likely be given high standing on SERPs—regardless of how accurate or ethical the content actually is.
Google, along with other search engines, empowers its users to exercise their freedom of speech. However, this sometimes comes at the expense of the right to privacy or the right to be forgotten (at least in the U.S.), and as a result, misinformation and unethical news is a growing concern.
The sharing of misinformation is already rampant on social media, and the use of new platforms to find information makes people more vulnerable to untrustworthy sources. A 2016 study backs this up, finding that people actively seek out content that aligns with their beliefs and perceptions rather than from balanced news sources.
Journalism Methodology vs. Journalism Ethics
Google values journalism methodology over ethics when ranking news stories or publications. While the two terms may seem similar at first glance, following proper methodology does not mean that an article is necessarily ethical.
It’s possible to follow all the rules of proper journalistic procedures to produce an unethical piece of content.
Journalism methodology, which Google uses to rate page quality, refers to the processes associated with gathering and vetting of information when crafting a story, including:
- Quoting sources
- Performing research
- Analyzing data
- Using public records
- Practicing transparency
Sticking to the proper journalistic methodologies helps outlets to establish E-A-T, which is good in theory, but this alone does not eliminate the potential for unethical or inaccurate content to be published and distributed.
Unethical journalism can take many forms—using clickbait headlines, publishing personal information without consent, making assertions about an individual or a business without support or proof, and so on.
Despite the potential harm, this type of unethical content can still follow “proper” journalistic methodology according to Google’s standards.
Professor John Watson, an experienced journalist and foremost lecturer in the field of ethics, explains the role of journalists as “provid[ing] information that the public can rely on when it makes its decisions about important issues.”
In Watson’s eyes, content that has any potential for bias or is not officially verified does not serve the public good.
For example, a journalist can follow all the proper procedures by using the word “allegedly” to describe the actions of someone accused of a crime. However, without solid proof of the suspect’s guilt, they risk permanently damaging an innocent person’s reputation.
That’s why ethics in journalism is about more than just reporting on available information. It is the journalist’s responsibility to vet that information, taking into consideration whether or not it serves the public interest and ensuring that the facts are unbiased and reliable.
The Harmful Effects of Unethical Journalism
Despite potential bias and misinformation, negative content and unethical narratives still rank highly on SERPs due to their strong E-A-T levels and can cause permanent damage to the reputation of an individual or a business.
Here are a few examples.
In 2007, Gawker Media published this article, which “outed” PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel. The article ranked highly based on Google’s Quality Rating standards and featured prominently in Google searches of the tech billionaire.
Despite the fact that the knowledge of Thiel’s sexuality is undoubtedly not in service of the public interest, Google’s algorithm still pushed the story up the rankings because Gawker enjoyed high authority as a news outlet.
While Google was not the one that published the story, its platform allowed Gawker’s story to reach wider audiences and expand the outlet’s cyberbullying campaign against Thiel.
Another tragic example occurred when a missing 22-year-old student was wrongfully accused of being the Boston Marathon bomber. After his picture was posted to Reddit comparing his likeness to that of the suspect, the post went viral and was ultimately picked up by some media organizations without proper research or due diligence.
The very next day, the outlets were forced to correct their story and clarify that Sunil Tripathi was not a suspect the very next day. However, it was already too late.
As his family searched for the missing student, they faced harassment and discrimination, with one Philadelphia homeless shelter telling the family that they “do not aid terrorists.” In the family’s darkest moments, days before they would find out the truth of their loved one’s apparent suicide, they were forced to deal with harassment stemming from the false media claim.
At a heavily-attended expo in 2019, a “self-driving” Tesla car crashed into a robot prototype, or at least that is what the media reported at the time. As it turned out, Tesla did not even have an entirely autonomous model, making it impossible for the accident to have occured.
The stunt was later revealed to be a hoax. Regardless, the media coverage, which ranked highly in Google search, spurred on existing fears of self-driving cars.
While the story was fake, these perceptions lead to real financial impact for Tesla by undermining investor confidence and driving down stock prices.
Google’s Responsibility to Journalism Ethics
Media outlets wield an enormous amount of power, and a single mistake can ruin a life, a business, or a career. Regardless, Google’s standards fail to consider ethics as a ranking factor, awarding news outlets and journalists with high authority in its ranking process—regardless of the content’s potential bias.
Google realizes the power it wields in deciding what content its users see. While careful scrutiny and review of “YMYL” content is a step in the right direction, it’s time that those principles applied to the lives and livelihoods of individuals and businesses unethically targeted in the media.