Newspaper archives and the ‘Google fallacy’

by Gregory Korte on April 5, 2010

I recently got into a somewhat public dispute with two former colleagues over my newspaper’s coverage of a certain issue. They claimed we had failed to cover it when, as I demonstrated in a prior blog post, we had written at least 30 stories about it over the past decade.

One of those former colleagues, Citybeat media critic Ben L. Kaufman, conceded that point in his most recent column — but then blamed the newspaper’s online archive:

I faulted The Enquirer’s watch-dog efforts when it came to Cincinnati’s Empowerment Zone over the past decade, saying it was an example of the paper’s willful blindness when it comes to screwed-up public funding of black-run organizations. Mutual friends told me that former colleague Greg Korte demonstrated in his Enquirer blog that I was wrong about Empowerment Zone coverage. Stories he listed began in 1999.

OK, I’m glad I was wrong. But it wasn’t because I didn’t look. I relied on the Enquirer online archive. Korte, a skilled reporter on computer-based data, might have archive access that I don’t. I tried again today. First, few of the stories he cited came up. Most or all were recent. On repeated attempts, either I couldn’t find the server or lots of stories appeared.

He’s right about the online archives — it’s by no means a comprehensive index of newspaper stories. Many stories in the newspaper never make it online for whatever reason, and most of those that do expire after 30 days. (No one in the newsroom relies on it for research. We use an internal database or, quite often, Nexis.)

To be sure, our archives ought to be more user-friendly. We shouldn’t be morally obligated to give away all our archival content for free, but a search of our archives ought to at least bring up the headlines.

But the episode is also a prime example of what I call the “Google fallacy:”  A misconception based on the incorrect reasoning that all knowledge is freely available — just a click away — on the Internet.

In a way, it’s even more insidious than the Wikipedia fallacy — that all knowledge found on the Internet is reliable. At least Wikipedia is a start. But you don’t know what you don’t know, and if you can’t find it on Google, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. Repeat after me: Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.

Of course, I’d be lying if I pretended I’ve never fallen into this trap myself.

The first time I remember running into the Google fallacy was actually pre-Google, in 1997, when I was working for a small daily paper on Lake Erie. The editor had heard there was talk on Pelee Island of secession from Canada. I did a search of web sites and usenet groups and came up with nothing. “I don’t care if Korte can’t find anything on the world wide (expletive) universal web net!” he shouted at the city editor loud enough for me to hear. “Tell him to get off his ass and go to Pelee Island.”

He was right. It was a front page story. (Though you still can’t find it on Google.)

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