You may have heard the saying that there’s no such thing as an “unbiased opinion.” In fact the term is an oxymoron in itself. As we just explored, when we have a journalism climate that seems to be driven by reporting on people’s opinions, if that’s all biased information, that’s not good for us. But think about how we get our news. We can research information in a perfectly neutral way, right? Well, it turns out there’s no such thing as an unbiased search engine either – at least not the one that 99.9% of the world uses.
Not good, folks.
A team at the Computational Journalism Lab at Northwestern recently set out to discover how Google aggregates the articles found in its “Top Stories” ticker that appears whenever someone searches an item of news. Take a minute and just think about how many sources of news there must be out in the world – not just blogs and commentary, but actual news sources. Think about how much information Google has to be – or should be – sorting through.
Then hang on to your hats.
The Northwestern researchers found that just 20 news sources account for OVER HALF the “impressions” of articles found in Top Stories. And JUST THREE news sources, CNN, The Washington Post, and The New York Times, accounted for 23% of all article impressions.1 We tend to think that journalism, post-Internet, has entered a sort of “Wild West,” but the truth is, Google helps ensure that the big monopolies still remain.
And here’s another thing: if you’ve ever been suspicious about the political slant of the media at large, you’re not crazy. The researchers also found, through analyzing a separate news database, that there are simply more left- than right-leaning sources of news to begin with.2 Yes, more of the media is liberal rather than conservative.
Not really unbiased, is it? Again, what happened to Journalism 101? Not. Good.
But here’s the real kicker: Google’s Top Stories ratio skewed that proportion even further, so that a searcher is 3.2 times more likely to discover a left-leaning rather than a right-leaning article in a search.3 How’s that for impersonal? It also should be noted that the experiment controlled as much as possible the influence of user “past search” algorithms which usually shape Google search results.
We’re long gone into the “information age,” and the churn of digital content is simply unfathomable, but in the midst of all this Google searching and scrolling social media feeds, we don’t pay enough attention to the VERY REAL way that the curation systems for all this information shape what we read, absorb, and regurgitate. Polarization happens when people get caught up in echo chambers of others simply confirming their opinions. Google’s search algorithm is still a matter of mystery, and I’m just saying – that fact should definitely worry us. Even more so than how algorithms shape what we see on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter – because if we can’t get an “unbiased opinion” of what’s out there outside of our own social networks, when it comes to finding out “the whole truth,” where can we turn?
Start communicating on your own channels, folks. It’s important.
Diakopoulos, Nicholas. “Audit Suggests Google Favors a Small Number of Major Outlets.” Columbia Journalism Review, 10 May 2019, www.cjr.org/tow_center/google-news-algorithm.php.