Respected online journalism observer J.D. Lasica has penned a thought-provoking piece in the Online Journalism review comparing Google News with Yahoo News. Balancing Act: How News Portals Serve Up Political Stories compares Google News, which uses computer algorithms to identify top stories, and Yahoo News which favors old-fashioned human editors. Lasica wonders, do Google's automated search results display a conservative bias?
He spoke with Krishna Bharat, chief scientist for Google News, who said he was puzzled by reports that the service has been skewing politically in one direction.
"The algorithms do not understand which sources are right-leaning or left-leaning," Bharat said. "They're apolitical, which is good."
Algorithms may be apolitical, but the human beings that write them are not. This isn't to say that the creators of Google news allowed their own biases to show through when they created the Google News service. The point is that nothing created by human beings can be completely bias-free.
I last wrote about bias in search engines in March of 2002, commenting on the results of an academic study of the issue. I wrote, "The fundamental concept of identifying the "best" results for a particular query inherently requires that some sources of information be given preferential treatment over other sources. We wouldn't be happy with search results without this filtering and culling."
"Biased" results are also directly related to the search terms we select, rather than any conspiracy on the part of a search engine. We're going to see very different results for the queries "terrorist groups" and "freedom fighters" just based on linguistic analysis, linking patterns and other factors used to calculate relevance.
Google says that Google News results aren't biased, and yet the algorithms used to display news stories remove the element of choice that we have when we enter our own search terms. We see what Google's programmers have programmed the service to display. Sure, we can alter these results by searching Google News. But the stories we see when we browse headlines are automatically generated.
So is Google News biased? Greg Linden of personalized news service Findory posted an interesting observation in his blog: "With over 4,500 sources, Google News has such a deep database of articles that it would be impossible for human editors to review even a small subset. Using human editors means many of these articles would never even have the potential to be featured; the depth of knowledge is wasted."
So there's a tradeoff between scope and depth, and editorial selection. In either case, inevitably, we get some form of "bias" because that's the only way information can be organized coherently.
What do you think? Are search engines biased? Should we be concerned? Please join the Does Google News have a Conservative Bias? discussion in the Search Engine Watch forums.
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