When searching for news online, most people probably assume they are receiving the best results. But what if the search engine is prioritizing certain types of content over others, even when it isn’t the best source for the information you’re looking for?
A new study from the Annenberg School found that Google News prioritizes national media outlets over local media outlets in search results, even when users are searching for local topics. This means that you’re less likely to see local news results in your search, and the local news results you do receive will be lower on the list, appearing after national news results.
“Google News has been regulated in countries around the world regarding how it directs users’ attention,” says lead author Sean Fischer, doctoral candidate at Annenberg. “But it isn’t currently regulated in the United States, and we felt that it was important to conduct a study to audit its algorithm and determine exactly what’s happening when you search for news.”
To conduct their audit, the researchers used programming tools to carry out a set of searches. They selected 32 topics — for example, school board or climate — and searched each one with no location information. Then they searched each topic using location information for all 3,141 counties in America. They aggregated the searches, and even when controlling for variables like publication date, found that local news received less priority than national news across the board.
The researchers say that the prioritization of national media on Google News is concerning for a number of reasons. First, 15% of Americans use Google News as their primary or only source of information about current events. Second, our current model of journalism necessitates that media outlets get pageviews to drive their advertising, and it is detrimental to the future of local media, which is already struggling to survive, if a major driver of web traffic is deprioritizing it. Third, studies have shown that local news increases civic and social engagement within communities and lessens the polarization of local elections, but only if people are able to access and read the coverage.
“I don't think Google News intentionally engineered an algorithm to help the New York Times over the South Jersey Times,” says senior author Yphtach Lelkes, Assistant Professor at Annenberg, “but that doesn’t mean the algorithm they’ve created is free of negative consequences.”
Another reason the study’s findings are important is that Google News is not the only place people go for news, nor is it the only platform using an algorithm to prioritize or deprioritize certain types of content. The researchers imagine that conducting a similar audit of other platforms, like Facebook or YouTube, would provide enlightening and possibly concerning results as well.
Published in Nature Human Behaviour, the paper is entitled “Auditing Local News Presence on Google News” and is available online. Authors include Fischer; Kokil Jaidka, National University of Singapore; and Lelkes.