A new study from the Computational Journalism Lab at Northwestern found that many of Google’s top hits for news searches came from just a handful of left-leaning sources — but the big tech company insists its results are apolitical.
Researchers Daniel Trielli and Nicholas Diakopoulos conducted their study by looking at the results of more than 200 news-related questions every day in November 2017. They found 6,303 individual links to articles in the Top Stories Box and counted an “article impression each time one of those links appears.”
Their data showed that 86% of Google’s Top Stories came from only 20 news sources. Just three dominated the coverage, with 23% of all impressions counted — CNN with 10.9%, The New York Times with 6.5% and The Washington Post with 5.6%.
Fox News, which was ranked fourth, only had 3%.
“As much as our results help better describe Google’s curation of news, what our study decidedly cannot say is why some sources dominate on Google,” Mr. Diakopoulos wrote. “We just don’t know unless Google is more transparent with the editorial design and goals of news curation in the Top Stories box. What we do know is that Google’s algorithmic curation of news in search converts to real and substantial amounts of user attention and traffic.”
However, their methodology drew some concerns about potential duplication of certain links skewing their impression count and the fact the study considered results from 2017 when Google makes thousands of changes to their search engine each year.
“We have no insight into the methodology these researchers used. Other researchers have found exactly the opposite. The fact is that like Google search and Google News, our top stories feature has absolutely no signal for a story’s political point of view and simply reflects the overall corpus of news and information on the web,” a Google spokesperson said in a statement.
Additionally, the research duo compared the list of sources to another study that measured the ideological affiliation of a news outlet by analyzing the political stances of those sharing content on Facebook.
From that, they found that 62% of the impressions were from sources considered left-leaning and only 11% from right-leaning outlets.
Google, through their spokesperson, argued that its algorithms cannot detect political affiliations or sentiments when collecting content, but rather measure a variety of factors, including relevance, timing and authoritativeness of a source.
“Our algorithms are designed to elevate news from authoritative sources, and we require publishers to be transparent and accountable in order to be represented in news results,” a Google webpage states.
“A higher proportion of left-leaning sources appear in Top Stories,” Mr. Diakopoulos wrote, while noting that it appears left-leaning sources also produce more content.
Google confirmed Mr. Diakopoulous theory, noting that bigger outlets have much more manpower to put out more articles and their engine essentially crowdsources based on available content.
In light of the growing scrutiny on how Google might be able to influence the news cycle, the company launched its own “How News Works” page.
“We don’t have an editorial point of view. Instead, Google products are designed to connect you with a broad array of information and perspectives to help you develop your own point of view and make informed decisions. We’re committed to fostering a healthy and diverse news ecosystem because we know journalism is vital to strong, functioning societies,” the website states.