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For an experimental feature that barely registers a blip in reality, the idea of letting sources of stories comment on Google News has stirred up a hornet’s nest in journalism circles and the blogosphere. Two software engineers at Google News said they would be adding limited comments to news stories that are linked from the news aggregator, giving quoted sources the room to comment more fully — if they are verified first to be who they say they are.

Most new-media types welcomed the idea of giving more room for people to give expanded quotes or ideas related to stories that often have truncated quotes. But the Los Angeles Times, in a cowardly unsigned editorial, whined that what Google News was doing was “not journalism” and even more bizarrely said “many publishers consider the Internet, and Google in particular, a greater threat to their livelihoods than Osama bin Laden.” OJR’s Robert Niles quickly rebutted that editorial point-by-point, saying that online comments are “a two-way conversation, in which reporters can, and ought to, participate, as well.”

When I posed the question to MediaShift readers, they uniformly welcomed the idea of Google News giving space to verified sources to give more information. Library scientist and blog provocateur Phil Shapiro led the charge, calling the move a “fabulous step forward” and a way to keep errors from creeping into stories filed by rushed reporters:

I see this feature increasing the accountability of reporters. If they continuously steer off the path, then their editors and the public will know it. This also levels the playing field, allowing people to explain when a quote was taken out of context. I say bravo to Google. You have empowered the little guy once again. The only people to be upset about this feature are old-school cigar chomping editors.

Shapiro believes Google could take the concept even further by allowing anyone to rebut a story with their own take — either in text or video. Beth Lawton, manager of digital analysis at the Newspaper Association of America, also thought the idea was interesting, and would provide a good forum for people to respond to wire stories that run in multiple newspapers:

Overall, that’s a good thing: It leaves room for mid- and smaller-market newspapers to start doing the same thing on a more local level, especially for town, county and statewide elections, feature story follow-ups, etc. Several in the blogosphere say they worry this will turn into a virtual ‘spin alley’ and become essentially a heavy public relations element on otherwise ‘objective’ articles. We’ll have to wait and see if that’s the case.

The Spin Factor

One recurring critique of the new comments feature is that company representatives will have unlimited space to “spin” the story back to their point of view, making it a PR dream. But in an article in PR Week looking at the new Google comments, the author found mixed views on the feature. Some people noted that the turnaround of verifying commenters would take too long and there were also complaints that the limited comments shut out too many people with valid opinions on the subject.

However, MediaShift reader Bruce Judson, who writes the Free for Today blog, thought Google News comments were a way for him, as a source of a news story, to unspin what journalists often do:

I have frequently felt that my quotes were used in ways that gave an unjustified ‘spin’ to a story. Now, for the first time, people accessing these articles will have the opportunity to explain, refute, or elaborate on what they perceive as bias or inaccuracies. The blogosphere has suggested that a better service would be to allow discussion by anyone. In this case, I think that Google is doing something different: The point is not how to interpret an article (which would be a discussion) but to ensure that the starting point for this discussion is accurate.

Longtime new media guy Howard Owens, director of digital publishing at GateHouse Media, says that he is less worried about Google adding limited comments than Topix and its massive number of online forums based on news articles:

If it were general, open comments, then I would be concerned that we would see less clickthroughs on stories, but in this case if a source says ‘newspaper got it all wrong…’ then that might actually encourage more peole to read the full story. [But that’s] if sources/subjects [even] participate, which seems like a big ‘if,’ even for a news source as robust as Google’s.

While I applaud Google News for trying to do something to add to the voices connected to news stories — especially wire stories — there are still a lot of “ifs” related to the feature. The biggest question is where they are. I have looked in vain for the past few days and have yet to locate one live comment on Google News. I even followed the examples mentioned in PR Week and in the Wall Street Journal article, and those comments seem to have disappeared from Google News. If anyone can point to one, please email me via the Feedback Form or put it in the comments below and I’ll update the post. [See UPDATE below.]

Beyond just finding them, I think that Google is setting itself up for a difficult task in verifying comments and soliciting them from all the myriad sources that are used in news articles around the globe. The Center for Citizen Media’s Dan Gillmor rightly asks the Journal, “What if someone fakes them out and compounds some problem that’s in a story?” What Google is doing might not be journalism per se (in the L.A. Times’ holy view of it), but it sure will take a lot more work than simple computer algorithms to solve and implement. And Google says it won’t have comments on stories from Google employees or on stories that relate to Google or the markets in which it competes. That eliminates a lot of stories.

What do you think? Are comments on Google News a good idea or something difficult to make work? What concerns do you have about such a feature? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

UPDATE: We have a winner! Someone actually found a couple live Google News comments. Lucy at MediaCo found one comment from Hawaii County Mayor Harry Kim on a story about Hurricane Flossie, though I’m still not able to find it via Google News search. She also found a comment by Ira Mehlman of the Federation for American Immigration Reform on a story about an immigration acvitist being deported to Mexico.

There are no rebuttals to Mehlman’s contention, but there is a link to an interesting FAQ relating to Google News comments. The FAQ says that Google will only post comments from “participants in stories” who are “people mentioned in a story or related to organizations in a story.” There are also some rules related to what comments Google will run:

Google won’t post a comment, however, in these cases:

  • Your response isn’t a comment.
    bq. * Your comment is a previously published statement we’ve already indexed.
    bq. * Your comment includes hate speech, calls to violence, or offensive language.

The FAQ says that comments will stay online for 30 days and then run in the Google News archives. However, I’m still having trouble pulling up comments mentioned in other stories related to McDonald’s, HIV and Hurricane Flossie. Perhaps the archiving function isn’t working well or the comments are hard to find. It’s also interesting the way that comments don’t perfectly line up with one particular news story listed on Google News. So I’m not sure if the idea of “fixing” or correcting the record on particular stories will work as well as just being generalized commentary on all the stories on that subject.