Does GoogleNews Have Conservative Bias?

Balancing Act: How News Portals Serve Up Political Stories (OJR)

In newspaper newsrooms, editors often go to great lengths to achieve a semblance of balance in coverage of the two major candidates for president. Some count the story inches devoted to both men. Others make sure that photo size and placement don’t favor one over the other. Journalistic fairness demands equal treatment. But what are the rules for online search engines, where millions of users are turning for their daily news fix? Does evenhanded coverage apply in the bottomless news hole of cyberspace? Does having an editorial team or an automated program get you a better sweep of important news about the political candidates? These are tricky questions. To their credit, Google News and Yahoo News agreed to pull back the curtain and explain how they acquire and display political news.

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Google News scours not the entire Web but 7,000 information sources (4,500 of them English-speaking) and then groups and prioritizes the news into clusters of articles. An internal “sourcing team” decides which information providers to comb, but for competitive reasons Google would not disclose which sources it uses. Google News’ most astonishing accomplishment is that it’s produced entirely by computer algorithms. The company seems to delight in the fact that it relies on engineers and product managers but no editors, much less reporters, for its news section. (Of course, like fellow aggregator Yahoo News, it relies on other news publications’ editors and writers.) The automated system is far from perfect, as legions of bloggers and journalists have observed when Google News places the wrong photo next to an accompanying story, or when it misses major breaking news, such as the space shuttle Columbia disaster, which received no mention for more than an hour.

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Small conservative Web sites such as Useless-Knowledge, Men’s News Daily, Michnews and ChronWatch turn up in disproportionate numbers when clicking on news about John Kerry. Useless-Knowledge, for instance, made up 12 of the first 100 results for John Kerry on Friday, and 11 of the first 100 results Saturday. By contrast, a search on George Bush or George W. Bush typically results in a fairly neutral, evenly balanced set of results from both sides of the political spectrum, with many of the same small conservative sites showing up to sing the president’s praises.

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Google News does not use the same formula as Google’s general search engine, which ranks results based on how many people are linking to a site or article. (While “John Kerry” results in 100,000 results on Google News, the same term draws 4.3 million results on Google.) Special interest groups use a linking technique known as “Google bombing” to skew Google’s general search engine results to their liking. For example, the first result for a search on “Dan Rather” is not the CBS News site but RatherBiased.com. Bharat points out, however, that link popularity plays no result in Google News’ rankings.

Ethan Zuckerman has a theory about what’s happening. He observed the same phenomenon. A search for “Kerry” on Google News turns up mostly mainstream media sources, while a search for “John-Kerry” — the search conducted when you follow the In the News link — turns up a great deal more opinionated pieces culled from second-tier and fringe sites. “I think what you’re seeing is an odd little linguistic artifact,” said Zuckerman, former vice president of Tripod.com and now a fellow at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society who studies search engines. The chief culprit, he theorized, is that mainstream news publications refer to the senator on second reference as Kerry, while alternative news sites often use the phrase “John Kerry” multiple times, for effect or derision. To Google News’ eye, that’s a more exact search result. A second possible factor, Zuckerman said, is that small, alternative news sites have no hesitancy about using “John Kerry” in a headline, while most mainstream news sites eschew first names in headlines. The inadvertent result is that the smaller sites score better results with the search engines. “You have to wonder why some of these wacky sites make the cut,” he added. With an occasional exception, Weblogs are generally not found among the Google News results, so Zuckerman had some advice for aspiring political publishers who want to game the search engines: Don’t blog — start an alternative news network. Use terms like George Bush and John Kerry frequently, rather than their last names alone, in both your text and headlines. Publish new works frequently.

What Zuckerman calls gaming the system, others call optimizing your site. Thomas Krafft, a Web site developer, said he began working with the conservative news site ChronWatch nearly three years ago when it was averaging 100 visits a day. “I completely rebuilt the site to better organize, categorize and display the content, to ease the process of adding articles to the site, and to especially be more search-engine friendly,” he said by e-mail. “Today, ChronWatch averages nearly 10,000 visits per day and is regularly placed near the top of the Google News service,” Kraft said. “And it looks like we’re on track to see the same results and popularity for the site through MSN’s new search service as well.” Krafft said he also advises his clients to use keywords and phrases that match users’ precise searches and to write in informal, accessible language. ChronWatch editor Jim Sparkman said the site attracts volunteer contributors who believe passionately in their cause. “There are many, many sites like ours on the Internet, and many, many e-mail exchange groups, that are forming a new communication method that is beginning to rival the big media in influence,” he said.

Interesting. The idea that computer algorithyms have a conservative bias is rather amusing. It does appear that GoogleNews’ methodology needs tweaking.

FILED UNDER: Media
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. carpeicthus says:

    There’s just a lot more message discipline on the right to far-right than on the far left. You have all these disparate sites talking about the exact same thing, so something that focuses on aggregating related stories by topic will be skewed in that direction. It’s a problem of structure. Memeorandum has the same problem to a lesser extent — I’ve had some really impressive correspondance from the owner about it, but there’s no really easy way to go about it without subordinating that water cooler ideal to some sort of ideological quota. It would be nice to find ways to reduce the distortion, though.

  2. Remy Logan says:

    I’ve always felt that the Google News front page has a slight liberal bias, which I figured was unintentional and just a result of the MSM’s own biases.

    I don’t think Google is trying to slant results either way, and shouldn’t try to “level the playing field.” Like carpeicthus said, it comes down to message discipline. Conservative and centrist bloggers play it more straight than those on the left, that’s not Google’s fault, and shouldn’t be their concern.

    Interestingly, if you search on “Bush is a chimp” you will get a bunch of lefty blogs, which is to be expected. Search on “Kerry is stupid” and you again get a bunch of lefty blogs, though that exact phrase doesn’t show up. I think this little experiment shows that the guys&gals on the right are playing it more straight and deserve to be first in the results.