Screenshot of a Google News search of "Central Basin Municipal Water District" on September 15, 2011, after News Hawks Review was removed from Google News as a legitimate news site.
Do you search for news using Google News? Have you ever questioned how Google News decides what constitutes as news? Los Angeles Times reporter Sam Allen may have given you reason to, having uncovered paid-for promotions disguised as news that showed up in Google News.
According to the Los Angeles Times piece, the Central Basin Municipal Water District has been paying $11,500 a month in taxpayer money to a small news website, News Hawks Review, in exchange for one positive story about the public water district a week.
The background to this is that the Central Basin, a public entity serving more than 2 million residents in southeast Los Angeles County, has been struggling for over a year with negative press coverage regarding connections to former Bell city councilman George Cole and investigations into board members’ travel expenses.
In response, in November, the water district hired Ed Coghlan, who runs his own public relations firm, Coghlan Consulting Group, to improve the agency’s public reputation. Valerie Howard, Central Basin’s public affairs manager, told KPCC that they hired Ed Coghlan to write press releases for the agency, put the press releases on the agency’s website and send out the press releases; she says there is no official connection between Coghlan or Central Basin and News Hawks Review.
Yesterday, Google News removed News Hawks Review’s stories from its site, no longer categorizing the site as a legitimate news source. If the articles News Hawks Review wrote about the Central Basin were not legitimate, how did they end up on Google News?
With Google News now being sometimes the first stop for news readers, how is the placement of stories decided? Does Google News have a team of editors who choose which stories get the most prominence? How does Google News determine which news sites and stories are legitimate? Ultimately, do you trust Google News, and have you ever tried to get it to pick up a story?
Sam Allen, Los Angeles Times reporter who is covering the Central Basin/News Hawks Review story
Marc Cooper, director, Annenberg Digital News; lecturer, USC Annenberg School