Where’s the proof? Google, the luge and the reliability of online news sources

Over the weekend, the social web has been rife with news that Google decided to withdraw a homepage illustration depicting a luge competitor, which was published within hours of the tragic death of Georgian luge athlete, Nodar Kumaritashvili, during training for the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympic Games.

According to the New York Daily News, Google made the decision following a ‘torrent of slams’ from Twitter users while Mashable published its own post citing the NY Daily News’ story – ‘Google Pulls Olympic Luge Logo After Backlash’. So far, Mashable’s post has been retweeted almost 1,000 times.

To a less sensationalist extent, ZDNet was also in on the act.

The problem is, I am not convinced that the story is true.

By coincidence, I’d planned to write a post about the fine editorial line between what public taste considers ‘OK’ and ‘Not so OK’ based on the alleged ‘backlash’ against Google’s choice of homepage image.

So I was scouring web tools like  Social MentionTopsyTweetmemeBing and Google to trace the timeline of the story.

Having tried to discover all the tweets I can – and I admit that I’m not necessarily using all-singing-all-dancing analytics applications here – there is precious little evidence of an alleged  ‘backlash’ against the Google homepage at all; certainly not enough to claim Google had cracked under pressure.

Yes there were plenty of exclamations of surprise at the choice of illustration, but retweets of Mashable’s story outstrips these relatively neutral mentions by at least 10 to 1.

So I am not convinced that Google did make a decision to withdraw the image as the NY Daily News – and subsequently Mashable – claim in their headlines.

I am all the more uncertain because of the final paragraph in the New York Daily News article which reads:

“Google did not respond to an e-mail about the logo on Saturday, when the search engine turned up 121,000 matches for the late luger’s name.”

Put that statement at the top of the story and the story should fall flat on its face.

So this appears to be a claim by the New York Daily News citing a handful of tweets and with no statement from Google to either confirm or deny that they made a decision to withdraw the homepage image. The claim has been repeated by Mashable and – subesequently – by close to 1,000 people on Twitter.

Why am I so bothered about it?

Just imagine if it was an individual’s reputation – your reputation – that was subject to the same experience rather than a huge brand like Google.

Maybe Google did make a decision. But where is evidence?

I’ve no idea about the reputation of New York Daily News, but Mashable – which is generally good at labelling rumours rumours – is an important source of news for the social web community. It is important that editorial brands like these safeguard their own reputations by respecting the reputation of others – no matter how newsworthy.

Both should forfeit the clicks by sticking to the principle that comment is free, but facts are sacred.