Thursday, September 03, 2009

Google News: Biased or broken?

Google News is the gold standard when it comes to algorithm-driven news aggregators. It's updated every few minutes, tracks breaking news across multiple topic areas, and is reasonably well integrated with Google's regular search engine.

It's also seriously biased ... or broken. I usually check it several times per day, and imagine my surprise when I saw this (click to see larger version of screenshot):
Google News bias
A made-up Onion story from last month, listed between real breaking news about swine flu vaccines and Canadian politics?

And a Wikipedia article, listed prominently as the background source for the Jaycee Lee Duggard kidnapping? I thought the Ivy League whiz kids at Google realized Wikipedia is a notoriously unreliable source for information about famous people and many other topics, and is frequently manipulated by spin doctors, SEO consultants, and vandals. I mean, that's one of the reasons Google created Knol, right?

But there's another problem with the results, one that's been nagging me for the past few months. Every single one of the top headlines for each of the topics comes from an old-school, traditional mainstream media organization -- 19th- and 20th-century print or broadcast news outfits, most backed by giant media conglomerates or billionaire founders. CNN, Reuters and the New York Times Co. don't have a monopoly on information or opinions, but with this kind of help from Google, they continue to preserve their dominant market positions in the new online playing field.

It's disappointing, but not entirely unexpected. Google News has had problems with its algorithm for years. For instance, unreliable foreign news sources used to be featured prominently on the site. Part of this related to an apparent desire to diversify sources of information to include non-Anglo-American media outlets (see my 2005 post about Xinhua's unlikely inclusion as a primary news source) as well as some foreign publications taking advantage of or manipulating Google News to get more traffic to their sites. Google has since tweaked the algorithm, but I fear it's been too far in the opposite direction. The same, tired old voices that one sees on newsstands and TV screens -- as well as a few quirky sources that should not be considered sources of "news" -- now take center stage on Google's automated news platform.

1 comment:

  1. Google news was once an -objective- and reliable source of news. Now it seems to be favoring liberal news sites; most prominently Huffington Post, NYT editoral pieces and others on it's "spotlight". I don't think google should prioritize websites and news stories which self admit to being partial.
    Also there is Flip; every single day there is a new news story promoting Google or criticizing their competitors. That's just shamless and those two reasons are why I'm going to stop using Google News. I just want to read the news truthfully not from a skewed lens.


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