Last week, as World Bank and International Monetary Fund meetings got underway in Washington, D.C., hundreds of protesters took to the streets. That much is fact. But if, at the time, you spent a few minutes online trying to figure out why they were protesting, you'd be instantly, redundantly reminded that news gathering is deeply subjective.
The Globe and Mail piece by Barrie McKenna, for example, headlined "Protestors facing final drumbeat," contained a swath of derisive comments like "The same folks who earlier brought you tear gas festivals in Seattle, Quebec City, Genoa and elsewhere are back."
A story in the Guardian out of the U.K., meanwhile, opened with this line: "The International Monetary Fund admitted yesterday that the benefits of the increasing integration of the global economy had failed to reach the world's poor as demonstrators gathered in Washington."
And hundreds of other stories each had their own context and slant tinting the picture. Case in point: The Motley Fool's top 10 ways capitalism is fighting back: "9. Drenched and shivering on Pennsylvania Ave., several protestors are spotted heading to Starbucks for a hot double latte."
With thousands of competing mainstream news sites on the Internet, what's a busy reader to do? Who has time to troll around looking for informed coverage of a particular story from a wide range of perspectives? Well, the folks at Google, the successful search engine start-up that celebrated its fourth birthday last month, don't have time to search for you, either. Instead, they've developed computer algorithms and an "automated grouping process" to package the news. And last week the company launched a beta version of its Google News page, which gives users immediate access to hundreds of different takes on the same story, all arranged in a user-friendly format without the subjective shackles of human intervention.
Essentially, like their searching tentacles, Google's news gremlins crawl constantly through 4,000 different news sites and update the Google News page every few minutes. Stories generating a large volume of Internet "buzz" are displayed prominently, with literally hundreds of links to individual items from different sources, all time-stamped (15 minute ago, two hours ago) and organized according to the algorithms' rather democratic whims. "While the sources of the news vary in perspective and editorial approach," the site explains, "their selection for inclusion is done without regard to political viewpoint or ideology."
Google senior research scientist and Google News team leader Krishna Bharat conceived of the idea after September 11, when, like millions of other people, he found himself spending an inordinate amount of time hunting for news online. "That was a lot of walking on the Web," he says over the phone from Google's California headquarters, "and I wanted to automate that, at least for myself." Bharat noticed that while surfing for news, he frequently encountered duplicate stories. Focusing on 150 different news sources like daily papers and TV networks, he created a way to prioritize stories and avoid redundancy while searching. He showed his experiment to some people at Google, they started using it--and the company soon decided to invest in the project.
Although the beta site is up and running now, Bharat says the biggest missing component is information on how users will react. They want to get as much feedback as possible before deciding on the site's final shape. "Google is a cautious company in some respects," he says. "We like to get our engineering finalized before we get out of beta." But already, untouched by human editors, as a portal for pure breaking news, Google News has one huge advantage over sites like CNN.com and newspaper homepages: it's not limited to stories produced by one corporate family of news organizations.
"The algorithms are trying to create diversity," says Bharat, who wouldn't delve into the nuts and bolts of this propriety technology too deeply. "We're trying to be as objective as possible. The intention is to have a healthy debate, so you try to include a good mix. Some of the best newspapers, even in the U.S., have strong opinions. So you have newspapers and opinions from all over the world.... We just want to put different opinions together. It's healthy to know what other people are thinking."
Given that mix, he continues, you'll see contradictory viewpoints on many of the site's top stories, although it's not programmed to intentionally put polar opposites together. And while the source-selection mechanism seems geared strongly towards mainstream media outlets, which have their limits when it comes to diversity, at least if you're looking for the latest on the Palestinian crisis, you'll see links that will take you directly to Arabic news sources right up there with links to some of the Western mainstream media's largest voices. Or if you don't like CanWest's Canada.com story on the latest ecstasy research, why, there are more than 100 other articles on the same study to choose from. And in a few minutes, there could very well be dozens more.
Compiled completely by computers, the site is updated 24/7, explains Bharat, which means the science guys get to go home and sleep. So far they're not adjusting the site with small tweaks; they're just watching it to see what it does and listening to feedback. One of the things Bharat is surprised to hear is all the introspective talk among editors about one day being replaced by this type of technology. "We don't want to do that," he says. "We like to say that we have thousands of editors. We look at their collected wisdom and how much time and space they invest in a certain topic."
Google isn't thinking about the commercial ramifications of the service yet, according to Bharat. "We want to do one thing right first," he says. They don't even expect people to make Google News their first stop online. "We're just trying to be a hub for news," says Bharat. "People come to the site. They love us. But they leave us very quickly." And where they go is not a world of Google's creation. After all, Google's just giving us an illuminating reflection of the media landscape that's out there.