If Profitability Is The Foundation Of Trust, Is Google Trustable? - Part II
"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."
Photo credit: Aces4Hire
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.
This is part II of Information Safety And Accuracy: Is Google Trustable
published last Monday, May 15th 2006
by Lee Shaker
Photo credit: tdenham
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 requires 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. source: D'Angelo, 2002, p. 877; Pan and Kosicki, 1993, p. 58.).
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?
Methods and findings
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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 -- 3 of 59, to be precise. Overall, the tenor of the New York 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. source: 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).
Of these 101, 62 of the sources are best described as business actors, 17 as regular people (librarians, carpenters), 9 as professors, 5 as Google employees, leaving 8 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 3 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 Rainie, 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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A Harris Interactive poll of over 2.400 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. 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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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.
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.
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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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