This is not an apt comparison.
Last month, I entered Slate's Google Trends contest, which tasked readers to write a deadpan AP-style story using as many Google trends as possible. Surprisingly, my entry won. In all, I managed to cram fifty-eight "hot trends" into my 560 word article about the news industry's obsession with Google Trends.
Here's what Slate had to say about my entry.
Congratulations, Stephen: You have won eternal Google glory, even though you kind of cheated by stringing all those terms together. Who knows—you might even make it into Google Trends. Naked photos would help.I don't think I cheated, as the rules never stated that I couldn't string together multiple terms.
Frankly, I'm surprised that no one else had the same idea, as writing about the news industry's fixation on Google Trends was clearly the best way to pack as many keywords in as possible.
You can read my complete entry after the break.
Now Trending: City High, Claudette Oritz, Miki Howard, and Justin Shenkarow
What do Deuce Bello, Samantha Harris, Pat Ryan, Myron Rolle, Kimmie Caracoles, Bobby Jindal, James O. Keefe, Morgan Harrington, Devan Downey, and Erica Rhodes have in common? Absolutely nothing—except for the fact that they’ve all been featured this week, at one time or another, on Google Trends, and they were all heavily tweeted topics.
More and more news organizations are turning to Google Trends and Twitter nowadays in order to find out what the hottest topics are, so they can capitalize on their interest. Within a day, trending topics can range from the Haiti earthquake disaster to Nancy Kerrigan to Kenney Stabler to Pernell Roberts to the Bedazzled game. Other days are dominated by a single topic. For instance, on January 27th, 2009, the top five topics were: iPad price, ips display, iPad cost, iPad tablet, and Recovery Act. Notice a pattern? Other references to the iPad in that list included iPad specs, iPad 3G plan, iPad a disappointment, Apple A4 chip, and iPad video.
But is this dependence on trending topics making news organizations lazy? Yes, Bob McDonnell, the governor of Virginia, may be a trending topic because he held his own pseudo-State of the Union address, but that doesn’t mean that news organizations need to write a dozen stories about it when one will do. Ditto John Boehner’s comments on Obama’s proposed Pay as You Go Law, and first Jackson Jeffcoat, and then Jordan Hick’s announcement that they’re both heading to Texas. Only one story would have been necessary.
In the wake of J.D. Salinger’s death, endless pieces about “Catcher and the Rye,” Holden Caulfield, Joyce Maynard, “Franny and Zooey,” “A Perfect Day for Bananafish,” Cornish, N.H., and the deeper meaning of Salinger’s other stories and relationships dominated the news, as media organizations sought to capitalize on the internet’s renewed interest in the reclusive literary figure. Google News aggregated more than three-thousand stories on Salinger on the day after his death, most of which just recycled the same old facts. Was all this coverage really necessary?
Following trends can also lead to inane stories about topics that really don’t deserve coverage. Did Greg Oden’s dirty pictures really deserve an article? Or National Lady Gaga Day? Or the Bourbon Street web cam? Probably not.
Of course some news sites, like Slate, devote entire columns to deciphering weird trends, like why people are all of a sudden searching about picket fences, Apple’s earnings, or the Vespa Ape. While some of these stories solve actual mysteries, like what AMZN stands for or why the Bank of America website is down, the actual newsworthiness of these kinds of articles is questionable.
Twitter has also become a place where journalists can go to find out what the latest trending topics are, whether it’s Leslie West, the Honda Recall, or Oregon’s measures 66 and 67. For a lot of reporters, putting your ear to the ground now means spending an hour on Twitter.
Journalists should try to write about what people are interested in, but whatever happened to pounding the pavement and talking to sources about the new Peta Ad, the Bernake Vote, or the Oregon election results? News organizations should be trying to set the trends, not follow them.
Photo of by Alexandre Bilodeau's Gold Medal by thelastminute.