By Sean Fischer, Kokil Jaidka, Yphtach Lelkes / Special To The Washington Post
Across the United States, local news outlets have been disappearing. That’s a problem. Scholars find that local news organizations strengthen democracy by boosting local involvement in cities and towns, helping to hold officials accountable, and reducing citizens’ partisan polarization. In their stead, a network of propaganda outlets has taken advantage of the gaps left behind, replacing local news outlets with deceptive and manipulative media.
Congress may be interested in helping to secure the future of local media. Several members have called on Congress to form an expert commission to help tackle these problems.
Now more than ever, local news outlets rely on getting readers’ attention and generating online ad revenue. But in a new study in Nature Human Behaviour, we find that Google News is directing readers to large national outlets and away from local outlets.
How we did our research: We conducted an audit of Google News by examining the search results for different U.S. counties for a set of queries. We used the browser settings to change our location to each county in the United States. Then we used the “near” keyword to search and collect Google News results on many different topics. We used queries about especially local topics such as “mayor” and “school board,” and also topics of broad general focus such as “president” and “shutdown.”
We then categorized the outlets that the searches returned as either “national” or “local.” For instance, USA Today would be categorized as a national outlet while the Portland (Ore.) Tribune would be local. We conducted about 96,000 searches and classified nearly 9,000 outlets returned from a little more than 12 million search results.
Local news outlets rarely make it to the first page of Google News results: At the surface level, our results were clear. Searches for locally oriented queries returned more local outlets. Broadly oriented queries returned more national outlets.
However, researchers find that few people look beyond the first page of search; in fact, most people rarely even look past the first one or two links. Google News put far more national outlets at the top of the search results; even for local queries.
As an example, we examined the proportion of local and national search results for “early voting” that Google News returned Oct. 26, before the 2020 election. Certainly at least some people searching for that term hoped to get information about local or state early voting information.
However, only 20 percent of the top 10 returned searches were from local outlets. If readers kept scrolling past the 20th result, they would eventually find local outlets. But national outlets were the most common sources returned in the top results, and therefore more likely to be clicked. In the top two results, national outlets’ stories appeared 56 percent of the time. Google News’s top pick was a national outlet almost 74 percent of the time.
Google News picked national outlets regardless of whether there were relevant local sources: We considered whether the number of local news outlets available in a county would affect how many local news sources showed up in the search results.
It made no difference. You have the same chance of seeing a local outlet in your Google News search results if you live somewhere with no local news outlets, as is true in many rural communities, or somewhere overflowing with local news, as in major metropolitan areas.
Well-funded national outlets get the most attention: So what does make the difference? Financially stronger media sources with larger readerships or followings are the ones more likely to be returned by Google News.
Why might this be true? First, it appears that Google News’s algorithms are tailored to put national outlets first. As a result, local news outlets are rarely high on the search page, even if topics are inherently local.
Second, Google News does not seem to deviate from its general pattern of favoring large national outlets, even on topics for which communities may be looking for local news. This suggests the search algorithm does not consider context or topics; nor does it make any effort to help local news outlets place higher in search results.
We don’t know how or why social media companies decide to direct our attention: Americans increasingly turn to Facebook and other social media platforms to get their news. But we know even less about how YouTube, Twitter and Facebook’s algorithms determine what users see in their timelines, or how other news portals select and organize content. Given the large share of Americans who rely on these platforms, their decisions could influence citizens’ news sources, political understandings and general knowledge even more than Google News does.
Any effort to save local news might wish to consider how social media platforms direct Americans’ attention on their platforms.
Sean Fischer is a doctoral candidate at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania. Kokil Jaidka is an assistant professor at the Department of Communications and New Media at the National University of Singapore. Yphtach Lelkes is an assistant professor at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania. For other analysis and commentary from The Monkey Cage, an independent blog anchored by political scientists from universities around the country, see www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/monkey-cage.