Tribune blames UAL mixup on Google

From Times Staff and Bloomberg News

Tribune Co. said Wednesday that the confusion over a 2002 article on UAL Corp. started because Google Inc.'s automated search couldn’t separate breaking news from older stories on the South Florida Sun-Sentinel’s website.

Tribune said it identified problems with the search engine months ago and had asked Google to stop using the function to find stories on its newspaper websites. Google continued to pull articles from the Sun-Sentinel’s website, where a link to the old story on United Airlines parent UAL appeared last weekend, according to Tribune.

Google spokesman Gabriel Stricker disputed Tribune’s characterization.

“The claim that the Tribune Co. asked Google to stop crawling its newspaper websites is untrue,” Stricker said. He declined to comment further.


Tribune, based in Chicago, said that a single visit to the archived article about United’s bankruptcy filing in 2002 may have pushed a link to the story to the most-viewed section of the Sun-Sentinel’s business Web page early Sunday.

The story was discovered in a search and mistakenly presented as new by Income Securities Advisors Inc., whose erroneous report triggered a 76% skid in shares of UAL on Monday before trading was halted. UAL had emerged from bankruptcy protection in 2006.

An Income Securities summary appeared on the Bloomberg terminal, and Bloomberg News published its own headline before correcting the story. Chicago-based UAL issued a statement that day to assure investors it hadn’t filed for bankruptcy.

The December 2002 Chicago Tribune news report on UAL’s bankruptcy filing wasn’t re-published, and no new story was distributed, Tribune said.


Richard Lehmann, president of Income Securities, said this week that the story was found through a routine online search for news stories about 2008 bankruptcy filings.

UAL shares have fallen 19% this week. They lost 63 cents, or 5.9%, to close at $9.97 on Wednesday.

Tribune is also parent of the Los Angeles Times.

Google, owner of the world’s most-used Internet search engine, said in a blog post Wednesday that the Sun-Sentinel story failed to include a standard newspaper article dateline but did have a fresh date above the story on the top of the page of “September 7, 2008.”


“Because the Sun-Sentinel included a link to the story in its ‘Popular Stories’ section and provided a date on the article page of Sept. 7, 2008, the Google News algorithm indexed it as a new story,” Google said.

The company said it removed the story as soon as it was notified that it had been posted in error.

In an earlier blog post, Google said: “It has been widely reported that many readers were unable to determine the original date of publication of this article, and our crawling was similarly unable to recognize that the article was old.”