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Water district taps Google for good coverage

Central Basin pays for positive stories by a firm that Google considers a news site. Officials call it innovation, but open government advocates fear it blurs the line between news and publicity.

September 13, 2011|By Sam Allen, Los Angeles Times

Central Basin has been the subject of negative press coverage in the last year. Los Angeles County prosecutors are investigating travel expenses the district paid for its elected board members and their spouses. The Times reported in June on contracts totaling more than $2 million the district awarded to a nonprofit run by George Cole, a former Bell city councilman charged with public corruption. And in recent months some local politicians have called for a state audit of Central Basin's finances.

Businesses have long tried to steer readers toward positive coverage and away from negative articles online. Danny Sullivan, a search engine expert based in Orange County, said Google News can significantly increase the visibility of a story or website because of its popularity and the relatively small number of sites included in its index.

But Google generally frowns on efforts to disguise public relations as independent news, Sullivan said, adding that if Google examined News Hawks Review more closely it could withdraw the news label. He cited a recent investigation in which the Federal Trade Commission shut down a group of fake news websites designed to promote acai berries.

In that case, federal regulators concluded that sites that appeared to belong to legitimate news-gathering organizations were in reality enticing consumers to buy acai berry weight-loss products.

"Clearly the FTC doesn't like the idea of these types of news sites," Sullivan said. "If you can get into Google News then you really have the ability to influence what people are going to see."

Document: Read the water district's agreements for producing news articles.

samuel.allen@latimes.com

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