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How Google Unwittingly Helped Propagate the Misleading "Ground Zero Mosque" Label

As the inane controversy over the Cordoba House, the Islamic community center being planned in Manhattan, gained momentum, the facility quickly came to be known as the "Ground Zero Mosque." And that label is misleading because it's not at Ground Zero and it's not a mosque.

Where the label started, who knows? Cable news (read: Fox) seems like a good bet. But what's interesting, as the Nieman Journalism Lab points out, is how it came to stick.


When a handy label like "Ground Zero Mosque" emerges, it's immediately attractive to bloggers and editors because it's short and a little provocative. And once it becomes the accepted, if inaccurate, term for the thing, then not using it means sacrificing the easy searchability of the piece you've written.

Poynter ethicist Kelly McBride zeroed in on that idea of search-engine optimization, noting that the AP is being punished for their stand against the term “ground zero mosque” by not appearing very highly on the all-important news searches for that phrase. In order to stay relevant to search engines, news organizations have to continue using an inaccurate term once it’s taken hold, she concluded.

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There's a positive feedback loop that reinforces the popular term and it's hard to break out of because, with web traffic as the currency of digital media, optimizing the stuff you publish for search engines is a real revenue consideration.

How do we fix this? I don't know. It would be nice if Google could somehow flag certain terms as epithets or weasel words, but I'm pretty sure that's beyond its capacity and the company doesn't seem very interested in assuming editorial responsibility for anything anyway.

More likely it will just be a matter of responsible media outlets thinking twice before adopting whatever slangy, loaded term gets bandied around on cable news. On that count, my colleague Morgan, who refused to use the label at the height of the controversy, did a better job than I.

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