It took five minutes for United Airlines to lose most its value on the Nasdaq Stock Market after a six-year-old article, lifted from Google News, ran across the financial wire with a current date.
It’s taken one day to assign blame for the incident.
The Tribune Company, owner of Florida’s Sun-Sentinel newspaper where the article first appeared, promised an investigation. On Tuesday, the company released its initial findings.
Tribune insists that the article, which originally ran December 10, 2002, in The Chicago Tribune, was part of the Sun-Sentinel’s searchable and accessible database for years. However, a specific set of incidents occurred September 7 that catapulted this old story into the spotlight.
Here’s a timeline, according to the Tribune. All times are in Eastern Standard Time.
1:00 a.m. – 1:36 a.m., Sunday, Sept. 7 – A link to the 2002 article appears in the paper’s online business section under the tab, “Popular Stories Business: Most Viewed.” Tribune offered no explanation why it appeared in this section. Some investors suspected sabotage, telling The Wall Street Journal that Web traffic was manipulated to push that article onto the popular stories list. WSJ also noted a less provocative explanation: travelers looking for hurricane news somehow clicked the story.
1:36 a.m., Sunday, Sept. 7 – A Googlebot crawled the article. Googlebots are what the search engine uses to catalogue information on the Web. (Just think of all those Googlebots crawling around your computer while you sleep—hello Hollywood screenwriters!) Tribune said Googlebots have crawled this story numerous times recently; it offered no explanation why. This crawl vaulted the story onto Google News with a date of September 6, 2008.
1:39 a.m., Sunday, Sept. 7 – Story receives its first referral on Google News.
That’s where the Tribune’s timeline stopped. Here’s what happened next: On Monday, September 8, a reporter for research firm Income Security Advisors found the article, dated September 6, after either a Google search or Google Alert.
“The reporter included a link to the article in a summary of bankruptcy items posted to the Income Securities’ page on Bloomberg, which sent out a news headline referring to the article,” explained The New York Times.
9:30 a.m., Monday, Sept. 8 – Opening bell of Nasdaq Stock Exchange. Shares of UAL Corp. begin trading at $12.17. They will climb to a high of $12.45.
10:55 (ish) a.m., Monday, Sept. 8 – Shares of UAL Corp. off slightly at $11.75. Bogus headline about bankruptcy goes across Bloomberg wire. Sell-off of UAL shares begins.
11:08 a.m., Monday, Sept. 8 – UAL stock falls to $3 a share. Trading is halted so United can respond. It denies bankruptcy rap.
12:30 p.m., Monday, Sept. 8 - Trading begins. UAL’s stock ultimately finishes at $10.92.
As the dust settled, fingers started pointing, accusations and denials let fly. United talked tough; Tribune denied everything; Bloomberg said (basically), “Not our fault”; Google said, “So sue us” (just kidding); and Income Security Advisors president Richard Lehmann offered this response, which appeared in The Chicago Sun-Times.
“It says something about our capital markets that people make a buy-sell decision based on a headline that flashes across Bloomberg.”
Interesting approach: attack the integrity of your industry.
The Tribune’s initial investigation concluded with this statement:
“The December 10, 2002, story contains information that would clearly lead a reader to the conclusion that it was related to events in 2002,” Tribune said. “In addition, the comments posted along with the story are dated 2002. It appears that no one who passed this story along actually bothered to read the story itself.”
“Actually bothered” is a nice touch.
As the Tribune suggests, the real culprit is the reporter who failed to read the story he or she rewrote for a widely read financial wire.
Sure, we’ve all made mistakes (oh man have I); this reporter probably feels blue about the thousands of people who lost their retirement funds because of the gaffe.
Meanwhile, the media insists that this is a deeper problem with technology and the way we read stories on the Web. Maybe, or it could simply be the fault of one lazy or careless or hung over or tired or just plain unlucky reporter. It would be a different conversation if the whole thing stemmed from incorrect source material, but that’s not the case—this time.
So look out! Googlebots are coming to get your information. It better be correct.