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Bharat On Google News Bias

By - December 06, 2004

bharatOr lack thereof. From Wired News:

WIRED: Most news sites employ humans to try to pull together balanced content. Why not hire a few people to guard against bias?
BHARAT: Google News is not in the business of having humans regulate how much representation there is from the Republicans in response to a certain query and how much is from Democrats. Once you start doing that job, there is a huge responsibility, and we’d rather allow the natural distribution of a given query to surface. I think that having people look at the hundreds of thousands of articles that come in every day is just not practical. Bias may have happened once or twice on certain queries. I don’t think the problem is widespread….The truth is, Google News doesn’t have a point of view. It’s a computer, and computers do not understand these topics the way humans do and can’t be systematically biased in any direction.

Bharat is the lead developer of Google News. I have to say, this issue has always stuck in my craw. While I grok the concept of a “computer having no bias,” I also fall back to the fact that somebody programmed that computer, to look for specific keywords, to do certain kinds of matching, to query certain sources and not others. The bias isn’t directly human bias, the point of view isn’t directly human point of view, but it’s nevertheless bias, is it not? Or am I missing something?

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  • ID:entity

    When you consider:

    a) Google used the social infrastructure of the web (citation analysis) to form a qualitative measure.

    b) The web algo’s are query independent (hence the great speed of results across billions of pages)

    c) Launch Ad words without human approval first (Overture’s USP for some time)

    Then is you were building a news specific search, your mind set might be too:

    a) remove the human assessment (scalability / speed)

    b) try to capture the social infrastructure of the vertical.

  • http://jeremy.zawodny.com/blog/ Jeremy Zawodny

    To me the bias has always taken the form of deciding what is and is not a “news site.”

    Take, for exmaple, Russell’s troubles with msmobiles.com:

    http://www.russellbeattie.com/notebook/1008171.html

    The lines are blurring, and I don’t know how clear Google has made the distinctions.

  • BCS

    Sounds fair, but I think even unbiased people can generate inherent biases in software…look at the BCS.

  • http://www.jasonlefkowitz.net Jason Lefkowitz

    “I think even unbiased people can generate inherent biases in software…look at the BCS.”

    I would go further than that and say that I don’t think that it’s possible for *any* system developed by human beings to be completely free of bias.

    It creeps into the algorithm in all sorts of ways. Heck, here’s one example — Google News’ picture of “the news” is biased towards news that is reported on the Web. News that isn’t, as far as GN is concerned, isn’t news.

    Is that a bias? Of course. It’s a bias that is imposed by limitations of their source sample — by the pool of stories they have chosen to draw from. Just like a lot of these other “bias” issues seem to be.

    What they should be doing is making it absolutely clear what the rules are for inclusion as a source in GN, what the current source pool is, and how they break down across lots of different axes. In other words, be transparent, and that way if there are inadvertent biases in the source pool, at least people will know about them and can correct for them.

    Instead, they seem to be taking the standard Google line of maximum opacity, which is a shame. To claim that a computer “can’t be systematically biased in any direction” is a facile statement that shows a misunderstanding of both bias and computers.

  • http://www.all-encompassingly.com doug

    So you know my bias up-front:
    1) I’m a right-wing Republican.
    2) I like Google News and I think that Google is generally “not evil”.

    That said, I think that Bharat’s comments can be better understood if you look at it from his perspective. There is no evidence that Google is fiddling with news search results in any way that would bias the site to one point of view or ideology. So, many at Google don’t see a need to address the apparent bias/problems with the site.

    However, there are at least a couple serious problems with Google News.

    1) Selection of news sources.

    This is what can allow for bias, as Jeremy pointed out. From a political angle, I honestly don’t have a problem if they were to include respected publications like Mother Jones, The Nation, The Weekly Standard or National Review. These are real publications that have experienced editors, writers, etc, albeit biased ones (although probably only slightly more so than CBS or FoxNews).

    The problem is that there are also “news items” from the likes of the Green Party and LifeNews.com (a pro-life site). There are simply far too many quasi-blogs/quasi-news sites included, both conservative and liberal.

    2) The disconnect between how people search and how Google News picks stories.

    I remember that Senator Kerry was getting some rather unflattering things about him showing up through Google News during the election. This, of course, was because of problem #1, combined with how Google filtered results.

    Most Republicans with blogs or at interest group sites referred to Senator Kerry simply as “Kerry” rather than “John Kerry” or “Senator John Kerry”. So, when people searched “Kerry”, the keyword relavance for conservative oriented “news sites” was higher. I imagine that a similar phenomenon would occur from searches on “Bush”, although I can’t remember reading anything substantiating this.

    So, while Google News may not have a deliberate bias, it certainly has inherent problems.

  • http://www.enklo.com/ Rikard Linde

    There’s also a bias in how they categorize the news and what categories they choose to display.

  • http://dannyayers.com Danny

    There certainly is human-backed systematic bias introduced into Google News, in particular by their choice of sources. But is any news source free from bias of one form or another? Perhaps the problem lies not with the machines (my printing press is a machine, of course it’s unbiased!) but with the audience not being skeptical enough. Or rather being totally gullible…

    If Google wants to do the world a service, maybe it could drop the myth of machine-impartiality and actively *highlight* bias.

  • http://tomnorian.com Tom Norian

    Bharat is just missing a few qualifiers. Google news wants to use “less” editorial control.

    I think a person can be “less” biased and more biased. Of course I have a bias to be open-minded and accept that people who are wrong might have their own reason for thinking the way they do. Others might call me biased towards uncertainty….but I’m certain that I’m less biased than they are!

    Bharat has a fair point but he’s made it with too much certainty. Basically, “by having less people touching the news stream, we’re providing less opportunity for them to bias the content of the news daily”.

    Here

  • http://www.fertilemind.net Aram Fuchs

    While I don’t think anyone at Google has an overt bias anyone that does a search at Google News for “China”

    http://news.google.com/news?hl=en&ned=us&q=china&btnG=Search+News

    can see that Relevancy & Link Analysis can produce its own accidental bias.

    Note that Xinhua is seen in just about every search result. Xinhua is the China Governmental news agency: http://www.xinhuanet.com/english/aboutus_e1.htm

    Thinking that this is objective news is like thinking that Pravda provided objective news on the Soviet Union during the Communist era or Henry Blodget & Mary Meeker provided honest analysis on Internet stocks during the Internet Bubble.

  • Ziya Oz

    Could a kind soul point me to the memo I clearly missed that explains why people actually want “unbiased” news (whatever that could possibly mean)?

    I don’t want ‘generic’ news, I want biased news, chosen by me because it’s biased the way I like. I want that bias transparent, discoverable, even labeled. I want lots of biased news in the marketplace, clearly labeled as biased. What I don’t want is news that masquerades as unbiased. I’m a news junkie but I don’t follow Google News at all. Why would I?

    I have no control over their bias. At least I have control over my own RSS selection which does track a large spectrum of biased sources, many of whose biases are not my own.

  • SL

    As I understand Heisenberg, there is no unbiased statement or search or search method. Discussing bias is a byproduct of bias inherent in both the speaker and what is being spoken about. Denying bias is biased (and not true). Acknowledging bias (and showing how) can foster meaningful interaction.

  • DaveKebab

    Editorials, columnists & thinkpieces have skewed Google News because they are more extreme and opinionated – and often they are not the work of journalists. Rank these lower and the top headlines appear more balanced straight away.

    They have been addressing this over the last year and things have improved.

    DK