September 19, 2018

With close to 500 House and Senate seats in play with the midterm elections, Google News Lab started thinking about how local reporters might use local data in their work.

On Wednesday, the team went live with a Google Trends Midterm page with data on real-time Google search trends at the state, county and city level. (Disclosure: The Google News Initiative funds some training and projects at Poynter.)

What political topics are people in your county searching for? How has that changed over time? What questions are people asking? 

Trends can show local journalists what issues matter where they live that may not be reflected in polls, said Simon Rogers, News Lab’s data editor. One example, he said, was when Andrew Gillum shot to the top of search rankings in Florida the day before the primary, which Gillum won in a surprise victory.

It doesn’t replace polling, he stressed,“but you can get a real sense of the key issues.”

The News Lab also partnered with ProPublica to build an Election DataBot, which includes “Google Trends data, candidate spending data, campaign ads, deleted tweets and campaign statements,” according to a blog post. You can set up alerts for different races to see when they spike in search.

The News Lab is currently working with two local newsrooms, KQED and, to customize data. In California, that means offering insights at the district level. In Ohio, the News Lab built “a more targeted, politically focused version of its public Trends tool,” according to The News Lab is also willing to work with other local newsrooms that have special requests, Rogers said.

But even without customization, he said, there’s a lot to discover.

“We think it’s a really interesting way to tell a story around what people actually care about,” Rogers said.

The data is anonymized, so you can’t see who’s doing the searching, and normalized, meaning you can compare search from big and small places because it shows significance in proportion to all searches in that place, not size.

But it doesn’t tell local journalists anything about intentionality, Rogers said.

The job of journalists is to figure out what’s behind the trends and spikes through their reporting, he said. This tool is just a tip-off.

“If something is spiking, it might mean nothing, but it might mean something,” Rogers said.

“As a local reporter, you know the area better than anyone else.”

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Kristen Hare teaches local journalists the critical skills they need to serve and cover their communities as Poynter's local news faculty member. Before joining faculty…
Kristen Hare

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