On Wednesday morning (April 18), ABC News’ senior White House correspondent Jake Tapper fell victim to one of the lesser-known perils of online publishing. Filing a story on a recent Romney campaign attack on President Obama (the Romney team dug up a quote from Obama’s memoir where the president recalled eating dog meat as a young boy in Indonesia), Tapper had his original headline indexed incorrectly by Google News, which pulled a particularly unsavory quote from the comments section and showcasing it as if it were the story's actual headline.
The headline, as Tapper wrote it: "Romney Campaign Notes That Obama as a Boy Ate Dog Meat*"
The headline, as indexed by Google News: "I’ll bet Obama ate a WHITE dog."
Tapper, who was alerted via Twitter, condemned the error calling it “horrific” and noted that “Google's algorithm is a pernicious beast." Adweek reached out to Google, which provided the following statement:
“Google News scans an article's entire page and automatically displays what it determines to be the correct headline. When our system gets it wrong, as it did in this particular instance, we work closely with the publisher to help resolve the issue and see how we can improve our systems to more accurately index content. The error was quickly resolved, and we apologize for this error.”
While the error was an honest mistake on Google’s behalf, the event speaks to a larger issue in the world of online publishing as search engines like Google act as informational gatekeepers through page rankings and algorithmic headline generation. Though Google appears to fix these mistakes quickly, the use of algorithms to modify editorial content could create minefields for online journalists, who at the very least, might feel the need to regularly survey their own work as it appears via Google News to make sure they don’t stumble across their own "dog problem."