Google yourself to uncover the lies

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This weekend, The New York Times’ ombudsman, Clark Hoyt, wrote his column about how the Internet age is screwing the subjects of erroneous or misleading articles. He writes:

A business strategy of The New York Times to get its articles to pop up first in Internet searches is creating a perplexing problem: long-buried information about people that is wrong, outdated or incomplete is getting unwelcome new life.

He cites the case of a New York City human resources official whose resignation amid an unrelated case of fraud–fraud he had helped uncover, in fact–made it appear in news reports that his leaving had to do with the fraud. Today, he worries clients who Google his name continue to receive that impression, as the Times article reporting this misimpression is the first to come up in such a search.

Even as a journalist–or maybe especially so–this strikes me as particularly heinous. Wrong information is related about you in a news article, so thousands, maybe even millions, of readers form a skewed impression of you. Then, because the media outlet has the money and man power to make use of search optimization tools, that erroroneous article continues to pop up in perpetuity on the Internet. Among other the victims of this double trauma, according to Hoyt:

A person arrested years ago on charges of fondling a child said the accusation was false and the charges were dropped. The Times reported the arrest but not the disposition of the case. A woman said her wedding announcement 20 years ago gave the incorrect university from which she graduated. She is afraid prospective employers who Google her will suspect résumé inflation. A woman quoted years ago in an article about weight loss said, tearfully, that she never was a size 16, as the article stated. The husband of a school administrator in the Midwest complained that a news brief reporting her suspension was published after officials had already publicly said she did nothing wrong.

Sure, it hurts that family or friends might think you’re fatter than you are. But to me a graver injustice awaits job seekers or business people who have been falsely portrayed in a news piece. That woman whose alma mater was wrongly reported rightly worries: many employers Google candidates before they hire, scouring Facebook and MySpace for clues on character. And you’re not safe just because you’re on staff; we all know how snoopy bosses have gotten lately.

So Google yourself–not just if you’re job surfing, but with regularity. And what do you do if an old community announcement pops up telling the world you came in second at the all-state high-school debates–when you came in first, dammit, first? Hoyt’s article offers a clue. Media outlets are “stumped” about how to deal with this issue; it’s “impossible” to re-report every old article containing an alleged error. But they’ve taken a first step,

correcting even very old errors when a person can offer proof, like a university diploma in the case of the erroneous wedding announcement.

What he’s saying is that it’s incumbent upon the wronged to correct the wrong–until they think of something better. That’s good advice, regardless. Yes, we media types have to take even greater care about the accuracy of our reporting in this age when news lasts forever. But mistakes will get made. We’re all the managers of our own brands now. It’s up to us to keep it shiny.

So start digging for that debate trophy.

(Google yourself and tell me: what comes up first? Me: TIME comes up only third; I guess my big media boss’s search optimization tools have a few kinks…)

POST-SCRIPT: Blogger Jason Sperber of RiceDaddies sends in this article, by Poynter Institute scribe Fons Tuinstra titled “The Power of a Blog”–it’s exactly what I mean.