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Sat Dec 26, 2020, 03:42 PM

Google is hurting local news by ignoring it

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.



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