Taking your finger off the button

Shares of United Airlines dropped 75% yesterday because of a poorly designed template. The Google News blog has all the gory details including screenshots of the Florida Sun-Sentinal site which included links to a old story, UAL files for Bankrupcy, in its automated “Most Viewed” sidebar widget.

The Google News robot crawled that link and because the destination page had the default header and no date stamp of when the story was originally published, Google News incorrectly interpreted the story from 2002 as today’s news. The dominos began to fall as downstream news agencies that obviously were short on fact-checkers re-circulated this old news as something new eventually finding its way on to the Bloomberg wire service.

This has happened in the past but never with such devistating consequences (UAL stock eventually recovered but still ended the day down 11% and is still down $1.50 from before the incident as of today). Recall the false Engadget-iPhone rumor and, Bloomberg again, which had been duped in the past, when a crafty short-seller found a way to mainline a fake story into the news desk of a lower tier press release service back in 2000. One can only wonder if this news will have an impact on the SEC’s recent recommendation that websites can serve as the official channel for financial earnings.

The news industry is under seige and there’s more pressure than ever to balance speed and economy of automation with the wisdom and judgement of human editors. But like riding a bicycle without your hands – you need to keep your eye on the road or you might end up looking like a fool.

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