AdSense and sensibilities

Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the last few years, you’re well aware of Google’s dominance of… well… everything.

One tool I’ve found useful has been Google News. I won’t rely on it as my only source of news, mind you, but I find it’s a good way to get a quick snapshot of what’s making headlines around the world and it’s often far more efficient than searching actual newspaper archives online.

One thing that has always sort of irked me, though, is the way they group stories and attach photos. Using a technology similar to that which powers their popular AdSense system, Google’s magic elves pluck an image from one of the linked stories, thus illustrating the story at hand. See Exhibit A:

Makes sense – a story about Harper illustrated by a picture of Harper.

However, sometimes the magic elves get it wrong – with hilarious (or at least chuckle-worthy) results. See Exhibit B:

“That’s not Gerard Kennedy,” one could imagine chortling to one’s colleagues. “That wacky Google!” No harm done, of course, but what if the story was somewhat more serious? See Exhibit C, for example.

Who is that guy? Did he abuse detainees? It’s a stretch to call this the basis of a massive libel case but it’s also only one example of this (and the most convenient to find when I decided to post). I’ve seen similar instances where a random photo was put up next to a story about child abuse, for example. The photo was of the detective who did the investigation – not the accused.

Google’s magic elves have managed to do some pretty amazing things but there’s always a need for human editors to exercise rational judgement that a machine elf can’t. The examples depicted above aren’t overly serious but there’s potential for problems here for sure. Google could be tredding on some shaky ground.


  1. The great thing about being the biggest kid in the schoolyard is that the same rules don’t apply to you. Suing Google for libel isn’t really going to get you anywhere, unless you really like civil litigation and have a lot of time on your hands.

    It’s an interesting thought, but doubtful that anyone will ever win a complaint.

  2. You’re right, I don’t think anyone will sue, but that doesn’t make it okay to do it. It’s one thing that I used to really hate hearing from writers and associate editors back in my editor-in-chief days – “It’s ok, they won’t sue.”

    Very few newsrooms worth their weight in newsprint will ever let themselves abide by that. Ethics and professionalism take priority, I hope.

    Again, Im not trying to make this sound like the worst thing that’s happening in new media right now. It’s just kind of interesting to me.

  3. While we are on the subject of libel when did any of us ever say “it’s ok they won’t sue.”

    But seriously, If any one did sue google for this it would be a whole new type of media law. Picture-related but unconnected to the story I wonder if any newspaper has ever been sued for misidentifying people in a photo with a libelous caption.
    It would be an interesting case to sit in on.

  4. Hey, we (i.e. CP) got google to pay, in some way or another that I don’t fully understand, every time our stories are used on their newsfeed. Even though they’re being hosted by other sites, the argument is that they’re ours and therefore google can’t just use them.

    And I’ve always thought that about the whole google news deal. It’s actually really annoying to me, because my interest is often tweaked by a photo, and so I automatically click on the nearest link. And then take a while to figure out they’re not even that related.

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