Finger-pointing follows news error that pulled down United shares
SAN FRANCISCO: The swift, sharp and short-lived collapse of United Airlines shares Sept. 8 has been followed by a week of finger-pointing.
Investors wiped out $1 billion of the market value of UAL, United's parent, within minutes of an erroneous news flash on Bloomberg screens about a United bankruptcy. Google and the Tribune Co., the owner of The South Florida Sun-Sentinel, whose Web site was the source of the article that led to the headline, soon blamed each other for causing the fiasco.
The stock plunge was instigated by a series of cascading human and machine errors, and it raised new questions about the reliability of automated news services like Google News and the struggles of some traditional media companies to adapt to the Internet age.
Analysts of new media say there is plenty of blame to go around. They say the problem had its roots in the still-clumsy dance between the Web sites of traditional news outlets and the search engines whose attention they covet. The initial error was then amplified by a researcher at a financial information service who had failed to verify information retrieved from the buyer-beware world of the Web.
"This is what happens when everything goes on autopilot and there are no human controls in place or those controls fail," said Scott Moore, who as head of Yahoo media oversees Yahoo News, the most popular news site on the Web.
The problem began Sept. 7, shortly after midnight, when a link to an article headlined "United Airlines Files for Bankruptcy," which had originally been published in The Chicago Tribune in 2002, appeared in the "Most Viewed" box on the main business page of The Sun-Sentinel's site.
Within a minute, the automated scanning system of Google News, which visits more than 7,500 news sites every 15 minutes or so in search of new material, found the link and followed it to the article page in The Sun-Sentinel's archives.
The article, which was about United's bankruptcy in 2002, did not have a date on it, but the page carried the current date at the top.
Google's system, which the company said had never come across the item before, interpreted the article as being new and added it to its news index, along with the date it had been found - Sept. 6 on the West Coast of the United States.
Google News did not put a link to the article on its main news pages, but the article could be found through a search, and it could have been received via e-mail by users who had set up an automated alert for news about United.
The next morning, Monday, an employee of Income Security Advisors, a financial information company, came across the old article after searching Google News for recent bankruptcies. The employee mistakenly sent out a summary of the article via the Bloomberg service, which is used by finance professionals.
Bloomberg's own news service subsequently flashed a headline, citing the Sun-Sentinel report. Within minutes, United shares crashed.
Trading in the shares was halted, and they later recovered most of their value.
On Thursday, the Securities and Exchange Commission said it had begun a preliminary inquiry into the incident. Income Security Advisors did not return a call seeking comment for this article.
Tribune said in a statement that its archived bankruptcy article had simply been online all along. The statement blamed "the inability of Google's automated search agent 'Googlebot' to differentiate between breaking news and frequently viewed stories on the Web sites of its newspapers" for the problem.
The publisher said it had found problems with the Googlebot months ago and had asked Google to stop using it to scan the sites of The Sun-Sentinel and other papers. Tribune said it had asked Google to use a different approach called site maps, which tell a search engine which pages to index.
Tribune also said that a single click on the archived article would have been sufficient to place it on the "most viewed" section because the click came in the middle of the night on a weekend.
For its part, Google said it was unfair to blame it for Tribune's mistakes, including the failure to date the article properly and the failure to use one of many simple methods to prevent links to old articles from appearing on a news page or being seen by a search engine.
Google defended the track record of its news search service, which has to deal with the peculiarities of thousands of news sites. It said that it had been talking with Tribune about potential changes in the way it found articles on Tribune's sites but that it had not yet made any changes.
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