Comparing the Portrayal of German Politicians in Bing News and Google News Search Results
Relevance & Research Question:
The internet is crucial for keeping up with news: Almost 60 percent of the German population above 14 years access online news (van Eimeren & Koch, 2016). The majority of German internet users rely on (news) search engines to navigate online information (van Eimeren & Koch, 2016). By filtering the available (news) content and deciding which content to present to the users, these news aggregators act as secondary gatekeepers (Nielsen, 2014; Singer, 2014; Wolling, 2005). Editorial lines and selection criteria of (human) primary gatekeepers are generally known, but there is a lack of information about the workings of news search engines’ selection and ranking algorithms (Lewandowski, 2015).
The findings of several US-American studies indicate that there may be relevant differences between different news search engines. These observed differences point to two dimensions: the variety of presented news sources , and the portrayal of politicians on a content level. Compared to Yahoo News, the search results of Google News showed a larger variety of sources and less concentration on big publishing companies (Bui, 2010). Search results for the terms “George W. Bush” and “John Kerry” retrieved by Yahoo News were more neutral, while Google News presented more explicitly judgmental news articles (Ulken, 2005). Thus, by relying on these services users might – without being aware of this – receive differing information about the same subjects (Bozdag & van den Hoven, 2015).
However, there are considerable research gaps - especially in the context of specialized news search engines. First, there is a lack of comparisons between different news search engines in the literature. Most studies focus on only one service or compare search engines and other services (e.g. news portals). Second, only very few studies compare the search results on a content level. Third, the few comparative studies that consider the retrieved content are all rather old and focus on the US. These past findings may no longer apply and are not necessarily valid for the German editions of the news search engines.
This study aims to close these research gaps. In addition to a descriptive examination of the retrieved sources, the study focuses on the portrayal of politicians in two popular news search engines in Germany. Two dimensions of portrayal are considered for this comparison: First, the portrayal of politicians’ private lives (privatization), which includes information on lifestyle, families, and friends (Holtz-Bacha, Langer & Merkle, 2014). Second, the portrayal of politicians’ professional characteristics as leaders (leadership images), such as political skills, vigorousness, and charisma (Aaldering & Vliegenthart, 2016).
The study is guided by the following research questions:
To what extend does the portrayal of German politicians differ between Bing News and Google News results?
SRQ1 Are the two news search engines’ results favoring certain politicians by portraying them in a better light than others?
SRQ2 Are the two new search engines’ results favoring certain political parties by portraying their politicians in a better light than others?
Additionally, this study tries to identify potential differences in the types of portrayals themselves:
SRQ3 Are the two news search engines focusing on professional or private information about the politicians?
SRQ4 Are the two news search engines emphasizing different dimensions of leadership in their portrayal of politicians?
Method & Data:
The empirical assessment of search engine algorithms is challenging, as researchers can only compare outputs for identical inputs to infer potential differences between services (Lewandowski, 2015). Thus, this empirical examination followed a three-step process. First, 20 search queries with 16 different search terms (names of politicians and political parties, current political issues) were sent simultaneously to the selected news search engines between December 2017 and January 2018. The first search result page was archived for each query and the first ten entries were considered for analysis. Second, the first five news articles per result page were accessed and archived. To avoid unwanted personalization based on the accessed news sources, the first step was fully completed before starting the second. Third, the resulting dataset of 400 search results and 200 full-length news articles was examined via quantitative content analysis. The analysis focused on the variety of presented sources and the portrayal of the three first-mentioned politicians per article. The portrayals were coded as positive, negative, or neutral. In total, 20 categories on the portrayals of politicians – 8 for privatization (Holtz-Bacha et al., 2014) and 12 for leadership images (Aaldering & Vliegenthart, 2016) - were considered.
SRQ1: There are no signs of a systematic bias for or against specific politicians. However, there is a lot of variance in the portrayals and there are two individual cases in which the portrayals of the same politicians differ significantly between the search engines. Additionally, the portrayals in Google News results are more likely to be negative (42%) or positive (28%) than portrayals in Bing News results (negative: 37%, positive: 17%, χ² = 9.821, p = .007).
SRQ2: There are no indicators for systematic bias for specific political parties with regard to the portrayal of associated politicians.
SRQ3: Regardless of the selected search engine, information about politicians’ private lives play almost no role in the observed portrayals of politicians.
SRQ4: There are no clear indicators of the search engines emphasizing different dimensions of leadership.
Additionally, there are significant differences in the selected news sources: Bing News results contained more online-only media sources (25%, Google: 8%, χ² = 23.91; p < .001) and wire reports (52%, Google: 27%, χ² = 13.10; p < .001). Google News retrieves more broadcast sources (16%, Bing: 9%, χ² = 23.91; p < .001) and – at least in this sample – more opinion articles (12%, Bing: 6%, χ² = 2.20; p =.138).
Although no systematic bias considering the portrayal of politicians is evident, the choice of (news) search engine influences the content that will be presented to the users. The findings indicate that algorithmic bias might manifest in different dimensions than expected. Instead of a political left-right bias, the significant differences in the presented sources and in the portrayals of some politicians show that new forms of bias should be considered in future research.
Citizens also need to be educated about secondary gatekeepers as part of code literacy: The commonly cited advice to cross-reference information between different sources might have to be expanded to also include cross-referencing between different services to find these sources of information.